Girdwood Dogs On The Loose
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
“It’s not cool to have your dog problem become somebody else’s dog problem.”
— Keith Essex, President Alpine Air
Encountering a loose dog without its owner is an unpredictable experience, ranging from friendly to terrifying. Not all encounters turn out pleasantly. Just because a person seems to have control over their pet, dog behavior can still remain uncertain, just like humans.
After Glacier City Gazette’s mascot Ozzy, a 10-month old Australian cattle dog, faced a dangerous situation where he was heedlessly attacked for the fourth time in a month, there was an awareness of a larger problem. People are willing to speak privately about dog problems in Girdwood yet are reluctant to speak publicly or file an incident report after an attack on a dog or human.
The attack took place in Chugach National Forest as Ozzy and I were hiking down Crow Pass Trail on a narrow, rocky, steep section. Having spent the night at the Crystal Lake cabin with friends, I carried a full backpack, as did Ozzy. Suddenly, two unrestrained dogs, which we saw earlier in the morning, began following us from behind.
With nowhere to avoid or lose them, Ozzy was growing concerned about the unfamiliar dogs. Trying to defuse the situation, I approached the larger husky in a friendly way, then without warning, Ozzy was bitten on the nose. I managed to separate the dogs away from one another, but during the scuffle, Ozzy bit my inner forearm three times as I was protecting him. Ozzy was fine, but I had to go to Girdwood Health Clinic for antibiotics, a tetanus shot and a growing hematoma.
After seeking out who owned the loose dogs, I was soon contacted by someone who had sent photos that were positively identified as the same dogs from the incident. A polite discussion ensued and the matter was settled without a report. However, two questions remained: If a report was filed, who has jurisdiction, and are loose dogs an unspoken problem in Girdwood?
To answer these community public safety questions, the Gazette did some investigating by conducting a series of phone interviews, and email exchanges for this article with several people who wanted to have a voice in the matter.
In a statement, Anchorage Animal Care and Control’s Public Relations Coordinator Laura Atwood wrote, “Per our enforcement supervisor, bites or attacks that happen in Chugach State Park or National Forest would be investigated by park rangers.”
Public Affairs and Partnership Staff Officer Chugach National Forest Alicia King said federal code states that dogs are required to be on a leash no longer than six feet in developed recreational areas such as cabins, campgrounds, trailheads and parking lots. A leash is not required on trails—but control is.
King said people can report dog incidents to a District Ranger or to Forest Service Law Enforcement, and reporting keeps them aware of potential issues to watch for. Other hazards canines may face are being in habitat with bears and cubs, moose and calves and traps off trail. A dog may draw a bear back to you, potentially leading to injuries and death.
“Be very mindful and aware of what is around you,” King advised. “It is up to the animal owners to behave in a manner in which they can keep their dog safe and they keep their dog away from other people or other dogs.”
Kurt Hensel, Superintendent of Chugach State Park, said all pets must be under control in the state park. Dogs need to be on leashes in developed areas. Dogs may be unleashed on trails but must be controled.
“If you go up to a lot of these parking lots, you’re going to find there are a percentage of folks that have control of their dog with a leash, but there is probably an even larger percentage of folks that don’t have their dogs on leash.” Hensel said, “They’ve been doing it for 20-30 years. They think their dog is no problem at all.”
Hensel said if officers are present after an attack, they investigate. He encouraged people to report negative dog encounters. Being cited for having a dog off leash in a developed area or an out of control dog is a $60 citation. The incident may become a civil issue between the parties if one wants to litigate.
Hensel indicated regulations allow for park officials to kill a dangerous dog running at large, stating, “If you feel threatened by serious physical injury or death, you have the right to do what you need to do to protect yourself. If there is a bear running at you snarling and aggressive, it’s well within your right to kill a bear in defense of life and property [DLP]. In my mind, it’s no different with an aggressive dog.”
Here are the Alaska Statutes regarding DLP and aggressive dogs: • AS 03.55.010. Killing of Vicious or Mad Dog Authorized. • Any person may lawfully kill any vicious or mad dog running at large. • AS 03.55.020. Dogs Deemed Vicious.
Any dog which when unprovoked has ever bitten or attacked a human being is considered vicious within the meaning of AS 03.55.010 .
Hensel acknowledged that in order for the public to be aware there is a loose dog problem, a grave situation may have to occur.
“There is a potential out there for people to get killed or injured,” he said. “We’re also living up here in Alaska and you have communities like Girdwood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a dog on a leash in Girdwood. It’s an issue that deserves some careful thought and planning.”
Hensel added, “What some people do not seem to understand is that not everybody is a dog lover. Some people have had serious, significant injuries and are afraid of dogs and they have dogs running up to them.”
Based on my interviews, there are three key types of dog owners in Girdwood. The first type is law abiding, responsible and respectful owners with dogs that are leashed, and well disciplined. The second type of owner is one who has been in the community for many years and still living in the past when the community was less populated and dogs were not as abundantly causing any disturbances. The third type is the most hazardous and the one that requires serious attention. These are people who are blind to the laws of the area and unaware of any current dog safety issues. New residents and visitors to Girdwood do not understand the leash laws or believe it is an open dog community.
While loose dogs create issues with some Girdwood residents, they also present problems to local businesses, particularly Alpine Air at the Girdwood Airport.
Media Liaison and Administrative Operating Manager, Shannon McCarthy of Alaska Department of Transportation & Public Facilities was asked if there were documented problems with loose dogs on Girdwood Airport’s runway. Her reply was, “I was able to check with both aviation leasing and with our maintenance divisions, and they reported that loose (and leashed) dogs and people on the active runway has been an ongoing problem at the Girdwood Airport.”
Despite the runway being marked “No dog walking, No hiking, etc.,” airport personnel constantly witnesses unwanted incursions with people and pets.
For a first-hand account of how loose dogs affect operations at Girdwood Airport, Keith Essex, Alpine Air President offered some revealing details to the Gazette.
Operating his business for the past 27 years beside Girdwood Airport’s runway, Essex has seen and heard about countless loose dogs and aircraft near misses.
“People often use the airport as a recreational area. Often times they have their dogs loose.” Essex said. “They end up running all over the runway and the taxiway. Because we operate on the taxiway, we’ll have machines running on the ground and we’ll have dogs running all around. The tail rotors are very close to the ground and we’re always scared that a dog is going to get whacked by a tail rotor.”
Essex continued, “Not only can it be deadly for the dog, it can be deadly for the occupants in the aircraft. The ones I have seen recently are dogs without any owners present. I don’t know who the dogs belong to.”
When Alpine Air first began operations, loose dogs were not much of a problem. With a period of significant growth in the area, there are now more people and dogs in the valley, creating more potential for problems.
Essex explained, “If a dog walks into a tail rotor, particularly on our Astar [Air Cargo plane], it’s quite low. The tail rotor sits at about knee level. It would hit and kill the dog. It could cause the blades to come apart and you’d have flying shards of metal and fiberglass as the tail rotor comes apart. If it came apart in the wrong way, it could cause the tail boom to be ripped off the helicopter—and if the tail boom gets ripped off the helicopter, all kinds of other bad things can happen as well—it can be a catastrophic event.” Essex warned.
Girdwood Airport also faces risks with various aircrafts attempting to land there with loose dogs running amok.
“With respect to fixed wing aircraft, if somebody is trying to land and they hit a dog hard enough and fast enough, it can cause the aircraft to go off of the runway and go into a ditch, which could potentially cause impact injuries.” said Essex. “It could cause all kinds of other problems if they hit a dog on take off or landing.”
To Essex’s understanding, no aircrafts have collided with dogs at Girdwood’s Airport, but he reports some close calls over the years. He says his wife Deb, has seen more incidents than he has.
Keith described a near miss he once witnessed. “A six-passenger Cessna landing touched down, was slowing down and two people were walking on the taxiway with their dogs. The dogs darted right out in front of the aircraft. The aircraft poured power to it, just lifted off and skimmed over top of the dogs and went around. The people just kept walking like it was nothing.” admitted Essex. “I went over to try to gently talk to the people. They were not receptive to anything I had to say. They were belligerent, rude people, very entitled.”
Out in Bush areas it’s another story—loose dogs on airport runways are quickly shot without question due to safety hazards involved with human and commercial cargo. In Girdwood however, that is not an option and Alpine Air’s tactics must follow safety compliances.
“Usually the ground crew here tries to round them up, corral them, and get them to go in a different direction,” Essex explained. “If there are owners, we’ll go talk to the owner to try to get them to round up the dog. Most people are receptive.”
On the other hand, responses can vary. Essex pointed out, “It’s so weird some peoples’ reaction to it. They’re just so entitled that somehow it is their right to have their dog running around loose on the airport. Sometimes it does not go real well.”
The problem is not all within the owners. Essex identified a lack of enforcement as part of the trouble as well. Dog owners are not likely to change their behavior until there are enforced consequences. He encouraged people to kindly give feedback to oblivious dog owners who may be unaware they are managing their dog improperly.
“It’s not that I’m anti-dog, I’m anti-irresponsible dog owner.” Essex explained. “It impacts everybody, and it is a big public safety problem.”