While a little girl recovers from a brutal dog attack, tension is building over who's to blame and whether the offending dog should live or die. Just three days after 2-year old Elin Shuck's mother freed her child from the jaws of a year-old Alaskan Husky named Wizard, animal control officers have recommended Wizard be put to death.
The May 10 attack – from which the child was lifeless when medics first arrived – occurred at Apex Kennels in Big Lake, owned and operated by Iditarod musher Jake Berkowitz. Though heartbroken over the girl's injuries, Berkowitz and his wife, Robin, plan to fight for Wizard's life.
Bit in the neck, Elin Shuck suffered damage to her vagus nerve and jugular artery, according to early news reports about the attack. She was transported by helicopter from the Big Lake kennel to an Anchorage hospital for treatment.
"My clients remain convinced that this horrible incident was not their fault," said Myron Angstman, a lawyer representing the Berkowitzes. "They have never allowed small children in their dog yard without specific permission, and certainly would not expect such a young child to be so far removed from her mother anywhere."
The pain of dealing with a gravely injured child is now augmented by the potential for brewing legal battles between otherwise friendly families. Robin Berkowitz has previously worked in the Shuck family home as a nanny, Angstman said; the Shucks and Berkowitzes share a love of dog mushing. When the Shucks couldn't accommodate their dogs on their own property, they made arrangements to kennel them at Apex Kennels, he said.
Brody Shuck, Elin's father, told the Anchorage Daily News that his wife had stopped by Apex Kennels to drop off money and dog food. As the family walked through the lot, a tethered dog broke loose and attacked Elin. His daughter is alive, he told the newspaper, because of his wife's life-saving heroics.
Focused solely on his daughter's recovery, Shuck "wasn't interested in assigning blame," according to the paper. He did add, though, that he thought the dog should be killed.
Over the weekend the Berkowitzes issued a statement saying they too were "devastated" by the attack, and that "all that matters now is Elin's recovery."
But now, both families have attorneys, and the Berkowitzes are concerned their dog and their kennel are being judged unfairly. An inquiry to the Shuck family attorney for comment was not immediately returned.
Wizard isn't a rogue dog that snapped and went "berserk" for no reason, Angstman said. A lot was happening on the day of the attack to excite the some 50 dogs on the lot. Which is why Berkowitz and Angstman have decided to challenge the recommendation that Wizard be put to death. They don't agree that the attack was unprovoked.
"We believe the attack itself was unwitnessed. What prompted this dog to attack this kid is unknown," Angstman said.
The version they offer of the attack last Friday is that it occurred when Elin's mother stopped by the kennel to pick up one dog and drop off another. She had three children with her – Elin, her 4-year-old brother, and 1-year-old younger sibling. No one else was at the property at the time, according to Angstman, who said the mother had asked and been given permission to stop by, but that she hadn't mentioned anything about having the kids with her.
Among the criteria listed in the Mat-Su Borough code to classify a dog for death is that the attack caused serious injury, of which in this case there is no dispute. Responsibility for assessing an animal's danger level falls to the borough's chief animal control officer. The Berkowitzs and their attorney don't dispute that the attack was severe, but they question whether it's fair to say the attack came out of the blue. If the attack was provoked, it may be enough to give Wizard a second chance in the eyes of the borough, as the code allows for some exceptions.
Wizard is described as a well-socialized yearling who has the run of the yard during the week with other puppies, a practice not uncommon among mushing kennels, Angstman said. And, until now, the dog has never shown signs of aggression, he said.
Which leaves Angstman and his clients to try to piece together how an otherwise good dog could have gotten itself into such a bad situation. What follows is their version of events, which they say is compiled from statements made the day of the attack by Mrs. Shuck, and from information gathered by Alaska State Troopers, who responded to the scene.
"They have been told that the mother of the injured child was about 50 yards from her 2-year-old child when she first noticed the problem. In their first discussion with the mother, she accepted full responsibility for the injury to her daughter. Now it appears my clients are being blamed. They will obviously defend themselves and their kennel," Angstman said.
Rarely -- and only when the Berkowitzs were present -- have children been allowed on the lot, he said.
On the day of Elin's attack, the dogs in the yard were exposed to multiple stimuli: small children walking through, a new dog coming in, another leaving. As the mother walked a leashed dog out of the lot, the dogs – all tethered – were basically "going crazy," Angstman said.
When the mother led her dog out of the yard, via a wide path that separates fields of dogs on either side, the children fell behind. When she looked back, she could see Elin was under attack while her 4-year-old brother tried to pry the dog off of his sister.
It was, Angstman said, "entirely preventable."
Even pet owners know that leashed dogs can get worked up when they run across other dogs or people, he said. The same is true for mushing dogs tethered in a dog lot.
Jake and Robin Berkowitz rushed to the hopsital to be with the family immediately after the attack, and ran some errands for the mother during the hospital vigil, but have not had a chance yet to visit with Elin, the injured 2-year-old, Angstman said.
Asked why it was important to fight for the dog's life, versus making the difficult decision to put it down because it had hurt a child, regardless of the circumstances, Angstman said the decision is a matter of principal. In the end, the Berkowitzs may lose their fight and see Wizard euthanized. But before that happens, they want all the facts to come out. Allowing the dog to be put to death, unchallenged, allows people's imaginations to run on unabated, he said. And already, through the preliminary decision of Mat-Su animal control regarding Wizard's fate, he believes there is a hard-to-shake implication that the dog or the kennel are at fault.
Animal control has notified Berkowitz that Wizard has been deemed a worst offender – classified a "Level 5" animal. That designation begins the process by which Wizard, seized the day of the attack and impounded, moves closer to being destroyed.
But before that happens, the Berkowitzs have the option to challenge the finding at a hearing, something they plan to do. Angstman expects the fight for Wizard's life will take place in June.
"We just hope the hearing reveals that this was not the case of a vicious dog that, unprovoked, attacked a person," he said.
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com