The dangers of Alaska’s charismatic megafauna are well-known. But it’s not just the large animals you have to worry about, as an Anchorage couple and their dog learned in an encounter this week that ended with the near-drowning of the 50-pound husky mix.
Wednesday seemed like a normal evening for Kenny Brewer – the 27-year-old Anchorage dietician was out for an evening walk with his wife, Kira, and their dog, Ruby.
The walk took them to Taku Lake, just south of Midtown Anchorage and a popular spot for families to visit. From the shore, they could see a group of river otters swimming in the water and climbing onto a log.
“They would slither off of it into the water, and they just looked very playful and non-imposing, you know?” Brewer said in a phone interview Friday.
The otters ended up swimming off in one direction, and Brewer and his wife went the other. Ruby loves to swim, so they threw a tennis ball for her into the water.
The couple didn’t see anything else on the surface of the lake for at least 75 feet, Brewer said – but the otters were swimming up to his dog from under the water. All he saw was “water splashing, and thrashing.”
“First it was just the one otter on her, and then it seemed like three more,” he said. “They started dragging her down, basically. You could tell she was getting bit, she was howling, she was kind of fighting back but she was getting dragged under for two or three seconds at a time.”
When he realized Ruby wouldn’t escape without help, Brewer tossed off his jacket and boots and jumped, almost fully clothed, waist-deep into the lake. He got his dog out but ended up with a bite from reaching into the skirmish – which he said he hopes is from Ruby, not the otters, given the small chance the otters could be carrying rabies.
Ruby needed a “mini-surgery” Thursday to clean her cuts and slice away damaged tissue; one spot on her leg needed a drain tube stitched in. Brewer said it was a bit of a wake-up call to the dangers that otters can present to his dog, and others.
“She’s a decent-sized dog, she’s strong, she’s athletic and fit, and these four otters of about 10 to 15 pounds each – she was no match for them,” he said. “If I hadn’t intervened, I’m certain that they would have killed her.”
River otter attacks are not unprecedented. An 80-pound lab mix fended off an attack by four of them in British Columbia in August. Last year, a 77-year-old Florida kayaker used her paddle to fight an otter that climbed on top of her boat and started biting her. And a month later, elsewhere in Florida, otters crept into the backyard of an elderly couple and killed their 7-pound, 13-year-old papillon named Bucky.
There’s a history of beavers attacking dogs at University Lake in Anchorage.
But state wildlife biologists said Friday that they haven’t heard of attacks by river otters in the city. Dave Battle, an Anchorage-area, said in an email that he was forwarded a secondhand report of “otter aggression” from the Nextdoor app.
“But we were never able to run down any details on that,” Battle said. He added: “It’s pretty rare.”
River otters can work together in family groups, said another state wildlife biologist, Jeff Selinger. In Ruby’s case, he said, they were “probably going after what they perceive to be a threat.”
Otters are mustelids – the same family as weasels – and Selinger said they can be aggressive.
“They’re cute. And they’re doing all their activities and they’re very interesting to watch,” he said. “But they’re still a wild animal, and they can be dangerous, so just give them their space.”
Brewer’s advice is the same. If you see any sign of an otter or beaver in a lake, he said, it’s probably best to take your dog somewhere else.