Wolf shot after chasing kids in Nikiski garden

Biologists theorize animal actually a hybrid

Posted: Sunday, July 28, 2002

On July 12, John Perkovich was working in a garden belonging to Billy Spires on Wik Road in Nikiski.

Perkovich, who lives in the Murwood neighborhood off Kalifornsky Beach Road, had been in that garden 100 times, bringing his three young children, Kim, Travis and Alea, to help Spires weed his impressive rows.

"He'll have 17 to 20 rows, 50 yards long," Perkovich said. "Then he's the happiest guy in Nikiski, because he can give all his neighbors vegetables."

Perkovich said he tries to get up to Spires' garden at least a few times during the summer to help keep the weeds in check. On July 12, Perkovich and his three children had arrived at 9 a.m. After a lunch break at Bubba's Cafe, they returned to finish off the one big row they had left.

Perkovich's oldest daughter, Kim, 13, was working further up the row while his youngest children, Travis, 7, and Alea, 9, were by his side in the waist-high weeds.

"All of the sudden, my daughter stood up and started screaming, 'Daddy, daddy, daddy!'" Perkovich said. "There was a wolf, standing at the edge of the row. Our eyes met -- it startled me. Normally, when you're out hunting, if you're lucky enough to spot a wolf, they're usually a mile away and going the other way."

This wolf didn't go the other way. Instead, it stayed in the long grass with just its head visible, intently watching the family in the garden.

Perkovich said he instinctively picked up a gardening fork, thinking that if worse came to worse, he could fight off the wolf with it, and the thought crossed his mind that he'd feel a whole lot better with a gun in his hand.

He sent Kim up to the house with instructions for Spires to get his gun, then began to retreat to the house himself -- with the wolf running up the garden after him.

Perkovich grabbed the gun from Spires, who had just finished loading a second shell, and told Travis and Alea to move toward the house.

The wolf caught scent of the children, though. Alea flung a weed at the wolf, startling it for a moment. Alea and Travis then ran toward their father, with the wolf right behind.

"He was nothing but a blur coming across that garden after them," Perkovich said.

Perkovich had to wait a moment for his children to clear his line of fire, and his first shot sent the wolf retreating back toward the woods. His second shot dropped the animal.

Perkovich wasn't sure what to make of the encounter. He couldn't think of anything in Spires' yard that might attract a wolf, and he only had a theory as to why a wolf would venture so close to people.

"He doesn't have any animals, just a garden," Perkovich said. "Here at my place, we raise chicken and turkeys, and we sometimes have a problem with stray dogs. ... Just the idea that one was five feet away from you -- I imagine we looked pretty small crouched over in the weeds, but when I stood up, it still didn't scare him off."

Measurements taken on the carcass indicated that the animal was small for a wolf by Alaska standards, a female about 60 pounds and 57 inches long. Taxidermist Roger Ager of Northland Wildlife Studio handles defense of life and property cases for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and said the animal had traits that indicated it to be a wild wolf -- the length of the face, the texture of the coat, the gray coloration and the scent.

Perkovich and Ager theorized that this was a young wolf that had left the pack but didn't know how to hunt on its own and just got hungry.

Biologists at Fish and Game had a different theory -- the wolf actually was a hybrid wolf, a cross between a wild wolf and a domestic dog, and illegal to possess without a special permit in the state of Alaska.

"That's what our speculation is," said Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis. "I looked at it, and had (retired area management biologist) Ted Spraker come in. We both figured it looked a little bit funky."

Lewis said Fish and Game's hypothesis was based on the animal's feet.

"It had small, dainty little feet which is not typical of a wolf, and there was an off-coloration to the guard hair," Lewis said.

Lewis said that problem encounters with hybrids have been on the rise both on the Kenai Peninsula and around the state.

"We get a lot of calls. There's people who own these animals and just put them out for the day," Lewis said.

Lewis cited a series of encounters in the past year, from a 130-pound hybrid taken by a trapper near Anchor Point to another hit by a car and one found dead in a ditch in the same area.

Lewis said another alleged hybrid was spotted stalking children on an elementary school playground.

"Some teen-agers saved the day in that episode," Lewis said. "By the time I got there, the animal was already gone."

Lewis said it was subsequently destroyed by the owner.

While one reason for the state's ban on hybrid wolves is public safety, the other has to do with protection of wild wolves.

"We're putting these laws and regulations in for a purpose," said Fish and Game area management biologist Jeff Selinger. "It has to do with public safety and the safety of the natural stock. It's important to protect the integrity of our natural stock. It's possible to get domestic animals to spread disease into wild stock. ... If it gets loose and interbreeds, then who knows what you have out there. It's kind of like the concerns you have with fish farming."

The suspected hybrid shot by Perkovich tested negative for rabies, and there has never been a case of rabies on the Kenai Peninsula, according to wildlife research biologist Kris Hundertmark.

"But if we did, this is how it would spread," Hundertmark said.

Lewis emphasized that Fish and Game is not looking to take away people's pets, and new regulations went into effect this year allowing people to keep hybrids, provided they meet a series of requirements.

If a person owned a hybrid wolf as a pet before Jan. 23, and, by this month: had a microchip implanted and registered with a national registry; received approval from Fish and Game; had the animal properly spayed or neutered; had current and accurate licensing; had vaccinations, including rabies, up to date; and has made all of those records available to the proper animal control authorities, a hybrid can be kept as a pet.

"The department doesn't keep a database. We don't know who owns these things -- that's kept by the microchip manufacturer," Lewis said. "Our intent is to stop the import, export and sale of these animals. What the department would like to see is responsible pet ownership. Even if it's not a hybrid, you need to maintain control of your dog."

Under the new regulations, the hybrid cannot be transferred to any person other than an immediate family member of the original owner, and if the hybrid has bit a person, it must be surrendered to authorities immediately for any action determined to be appropriate.

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