A new menace for Anchorage dogs: river otters

The dangers of Alaska’s charismatic megafauna like moose and bears are well-known. But it’s not just the large animals you have to worry about, as an Anchorage couple learned in an encounter last week that ended with the near-drowning of their 50-pound husky mix.

Ruby is a 50-pound husky mix. She was attacked by river otters in Anchorage’s Taku Lake the evening of Oct. 9, 2019.

Ruby is a 50-pound husky mix. She was attacked by river otters in Anchorage’s Taku Lake the evening of Oct. 9, 2019. (Photo courtesy Kenny Brewer)

Wednesday seemed like a normal evening for Kenny Brewer, a 27-year-old Anchorage dietician. He went out for an evening walk with his wife, Kira, and their dog, Ruby.

The stroll took them to Taku Lake, just south of Midtown Anchorage, a popular spot for families. From the shore, they could see a group of river otters swimming and climbing onto a log, he said. They were kind of like the otters you might see in the ocean except smaller, he said.

“They would slither off of it into the water, and they just looked very playful and non-imposing, you know?” Brewer said.

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, under the surface, the otters were swimming for his dog. All of a sudden, he saw 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.”

Brewer realized Ruby wouldn’t escape without help. He tossed off his jacket and boots and waded waist-deep into the lake. He got his dog out but ended up with a bite from reaching into the skirmish. He hopes it 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, he said. 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 dogs.

“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 biologist, said he was forwarded one other 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, 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.

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