Liza McCafferty let her spirited dog Lucky out for a bathroom break a few weeks ago at her home not far from the busy Parks Highway in Wasilla.
“He was my work buddy, he was my hiking buddy,” McCafferty said of the 8-year-old Havanese, a breed within the bichon family known for loyalty and playfulness. “He was very social; everybody knew him at Lowe’s up here.”
McCafferty attached Lucky’s lead to a run in their yard, where tree branches downed by this winter’s powerful windstorm were still frozen to the ground. Then she went inside to take care of something before her next work meeting started.
When McCafferty came back out, she saw a black dog dart from underneath her deck, part of a pack that suddenly appeared in her yard.
“Right below the stairs, that’s when I saw all those dogs,” she said.
She panicked, screamed and retreated when the dogs looked like they might attack her too.
“I ran back up, I didn’t know what those dogs were gonna do. My dog was torn apart there,” McCafferty said.
The pack’s owner, standing at the top of a small hill at the far edge of McCafferty’s property, ran down to wrangle the animals.
They were sled dogs belonging to Jessie Holmes, an accomplished musher who had recently finished third in this year’s Iditarod and is a fan favorite in the popular reality-TV franchise “Life Below Zero: Alaska” on the National Geographic channel.
Holmes lives at a remote homestead in the Interior, but in late March after the Iditarod ended he and his team were staying at the Grand View Inn, a hotel with a parking lot that backs up to the far end of McCafferty’s yard.
Once the sled dogs were all rounded up, Holmes went to McCafferty’s house.
“He came in and was very, very apologetic,” she recalled. “He was on the verge of crying.”
She was too upset to speak much with him and asked him to leave, taking his information for later.
A friend helped her get Lucky to a nearby veterinary clinic, but he was dead.
“It was just a really terrible accident due to my negligence,” Holmes said from Kotzebue, where he had competed in the Kobuk 440 sled dog race over the weekend.
The hotel is popular with mushers coming through Wasilla for veterinary care and during race season. Holmes said he has stayed there more than a dozen times with his dog team, letting them run loose to relieve themselves without a problem. He had two new dogs in the mix, though, and thinks when they ventured off toward McCafferty’s yard, the rest of the pack followed.
“There’s no way to not be distraught about this,” he said, adding that he’s fully accountable for what happened and wants to help make things right any way that he can. “It’s terrible when you make a bad call.”
Holmes said a municipal official told him he’s receiving 10 loose-dog citations and potentially another for animal cruelty, which could have negative ramifications for his professional mushing career.
McCafferty wrote about what happened on social media, which unleashed a torrent of responses — most of them supportive and consoling, a few negative and malicious.
Afterward, the city of Wasilla received so many inquiries about the attack that officials took the unusual step of issuing a public statement from Mayor Glenda Ledford saying the incident was under investigation.
Lucky’s absence won’t be filled anytime soon, McCafferty said. He was adventurous for a dog of just 15 pounds, regularly seated in his special spot in the family’s off-road vehicle for forays into the wild or up to Knik Glacier.
“We don’t take in dogs easily, so this has been devastating,” McCafferty said.
McCafferty said one of the positives to come out of the tragedy is the unexpected camaraderie it generated with neighbors and people who reached out after she posted about what happened. Strangers messaged her from far beyond Wasilla to offer sympathies, many sharing similar stories.
She said she hopes Holmes can help reach out to his social media followers and other fans to educate people about responsible pet ownership.
“It wasn’t just dogs that people were sharing these stories about,” McCafferty said. “These attacks happen, and they can be prevented. And I would like Jessie to help get the word out.”