Musher wants dog that attacked child put down by family vet

Kyle Hopkins
Musher Jake Berkowitz listens as Jennifer Sundquist gives a final statement Wednesday. Sundquist's two-year-old daughter, Elin, was seriously injured when a dog from Berkowitz's kennel attacked her. The Mat-Su Borough Animal Care and Regulation board took testimony on whether a dog in Jake Berkowitz's kennel should be put to death. The dog, Wizard, attacked and seriously injured a two-year-old in May.
Marc Lester
Wizard (Alaska State Troopers' photo via Mat-Su Borough Animal Care and Regulation)
Alaska State Troopers

Wizard, the sled dog that attacked and seriously injured a 2-year-old girl in May, will be put down Friday morning at the request of owner Jake Berkowitz.

The husky faces inhumane confinement at the borough shelter with no release in sight, the Iditarod veteran wrote in a statement posted on his kennel Facebook page. Berkowitz said he has asked that his private veterinarian be allowed to kill the dog "in the comfort and presence of his human family."

"This is a heartbreaking decision for our entire family at Apex Kennels but one that we as responsible dog owners must make," Berkowitz wrote.

Wizard broke free of his chain and mauled Elin Shuck on May 10 at Berkowitz's dog yard near Big Lake. Elin's mother, Jennifer Sundquist, was walking one of her own dogs through the yard of more than 50 huskies at the time. The mother was carrying her infant on her back and was followed by her 4-year-old son and Elin.

Berkowitz was not home at the time of the attack and said he never would have allowed young children in his dog yard without his presence.

The borough animal control chief recommended Wizard be killed under a borough law that calls for animals that seriously injure humans, except under certain conditions, to be put down.

The borough Animal Care and Regulation Board was split 2-2 on Monday, with two members saying the dog should be humanely killed and two saying the family was trespassing or provoked the dog. Board chairman John Wood questioned Sundquist's decision to bring the children into the dog yard but said he was concerned Wizard could attack a person again, particularly a small child, if given the chance.

The order allowed the dog to live pending any appeals. Borough lawyers on Tuesday filed a motion asking the board to reconsider.

Berkowitz attorney Myron Angstman said the case could have dragged on for months, with the dog confined without exercise in what the musher considers to be inhumane conditions. Berkowitz cannot afford an endless legal battle, Angstman said.

"You can only keep up the good fight for so long. They don't have public defenders for dogs who are on death row," Angstman said.

Berkowitz and the borough reached an agreement Thursday calling for the dog to be put down on Friday morning by one of two veterinarians employed by Berkowitz, he said.

Matanuska-Susitna Borough attorneys argued that Wizard should never have been spared by the animal control board and that there is no evidence Elin provoked the attack. The husky nearly tore the girl's ear off, grabbed her by the throat and shook her before attacking a second time, read a statement provided by borough spokeswoman Patty Sullivan.

"The child lost two-thirds of her blood, her jugular vein was severed. ... When a dog inflicts such trauma on a small child with no cause, it is too dangerous to live among the public. The risk cannot be taken a second time," the statement said.

Shelter spokeswoman Carol Vardeman said a member of the shelter staff would verify that the dog was put down, and the musher will be charged $540 in boarding fees for the borough keeping custody of the dog since the attack.

A shelter veterinarian testified at the hearing on Wizard's fate that the dog appeared to have a heightened prey instinct. When her own children visited the shelter, she testified, the dog reacted to a loud noise made by her daughter by lunging at a door. The children and dog were separated by locked doors, she said.

In his statement, Berkowitz wrote that the vet's children teased or tormented the dog in hopes of provoking a response. Wizard reacted as any dog would, he wrote.

"We strongly feel that this is an irresponsible way of conducting the necessary steps of treating Wizard and we feel it is inhumane to further torment an animal in these unfamiliar foreign living conditions," Berkowitz wrote.

Sullivan countered that the children of the veterinarian, Katrina Zwolinski, in no way provoked or antagonized the dog. The children were at the shelter to see puppies at the quarantine room, she wrote. Their presence did not violate shelter policy, the borough says.

The children sometimes volunteer at the shelter, Vardeman said. "You have to place the blame somewhere and it's not always well placed. (Zwolinski) has been a veterinarian for over a decade," she said. "Someone who dedicates their life to protect animals would never do that."

Wizard is being held in a sunlit quarantine room with eight other dogs and two puppies, according to the borough. He is fed six cups a day of special food provided by Berkowitz.

In his statement, the musher said the borough has blocked him from seeing the dog. The 60-pound husky has been denied the ability to bond, exercise and socialize with its kennel mates on the family's 10-acre property near Big Lake, he wrote.

"Our philosophy has always been to give our sled dogs the respect, care, and active lifestyle they deserve as elite athletes. Our puppies and adult dogs are accustomed to being off their chains while having the joy and stimulation to bond and socialize with the other dogs and mushers in the safety of our 10 acre property," he wrote.

"The events of May 10th will always haunt the Shuck family as well as our own at Apex Kennels. The incident was completely preventable and due to a series of poor decisions that day, Elin's life nor Wizard's will ever be the same," Berkowitz wrote.

Angstman said both the musher and the borough sought to put the dog down this week.

The Bethel attorney, who is also an Iditarod veteran, said the family initially fought the borough recommendation to kill Wizard both to spare the dog's life and to tell their account of what happened on the day of the attack.

"From our point of view, that was successful," Angstman said. "Most people it seems now appreciate what happened and appreciate that the Berkowitzes were not a part of what happened that day."

Berkowitz declined to be interviewed Thursday.

Sundquist wrote in an email that she is saddened that any animal has to be killed, but that Wizard meets the borough's classification for the most dangerous of dogs.

"For the safety of other children and to prevent this from happening again my family and I feel it's absolutely necessary to have him humanly euthanized," she wrote.

Her attorney, Mike Patterson, would not say if the family plans to file a civil lawsuit related to the attack.

Sundquist and her husband paid the musher to board some of their own dogs at the kennel and visited the day of the mauling to drop off payment and pick up dogs, they said.


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