Dog Maulings Worse Than Bear Attacks In Alaska

ANCHORAGE - Two separate maulings of children in Alaska villages are the latest examples of what public health officials are calling a longstanding rural threat - dog attacks.

Last weekend, a 2-year-old girl from Koliganek was badly bitten in the face and had to have her leg amputated after being attacked when she wandered into a neighbor's dog lot. A week earlier, at Ambler, a dog ripped the scalp from a 4-year-old girl.

Hundreds of children are treated each year for dog bites across the state, according to one study, and several recent attacks have health officials advocating stricter measures to separate children from dogs.

Some are suggesting that dog teams be moved out of villages, and a few are advocating that the dogs' sharp canine teeth be snipped off.

"Bears get the play in the news, but dogs are much worse of a problem," says Thomas Nighswander, director of community health services at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage. "Generally, we figure we're going to have one death a year" from dog maulings.

Statewide, a dozen children are hospitalized each year because of dog bites, with many more treated in emergency rooms and clinics.

Most of those children come from rural villages, where sled dogs often are anchored by chains in lots not far from where children play.

The 4-year-old was attacked Oct. 23 in Ambler. The dog ripped her scalp, nearly severed her ears and chewed her face so badly she'll be scarred for life, doctors say.

Last Sunday, 2-year-old Tracy Ann Ishnook wandered away from Koliganek home and into a dog lot with 15 dogs chained to the ground. She was out of sight just a few minutes. When her father found her, one of the dogs was chewing on her leg.

Her left leg, however, had to be amputated just below the knee.

After he rescued his daughter, the father walked back to the dog and beat it to death with a stick.

A third child, recently bitten by a dog in a village near Bethel, is to have reconstructive surgery this week.

Health agencies in Alaska don't keep year-to-year records on all the dog bites treated by clinics and hospitals.

But one study determined that 2,516 dog bites required medical treatment statewide in 1979.

Another state report says Alaska's rate of death from dog attacks was 90 times the national rate.

The problem occurs in areas all over the Arctic, says Dennis DeGross, a health planner for the Alaska Center for Rural Health.

Five years ago, DeGross visited Greenland, which has more dogs than people in many Native villages. Villagers there solved the problem of dog maulings two decades ago by requiring all dogs to have their canine teeth snipped off.

"I know the veterinarians in Alaska would be horrified," DeGross says, "but the bottom line is they haven't lost a child in 20 years."

Ron Perkins, an injury specialist at the Alaska Native Medical Center, argues it's easier to move the dogs out of town. At least some villages have tried to ban keeping dog teams in villages, and others have ordinances requiring that loose dogs be shot.