PALMER -- The Matanuska-Susitna Borough animal shelter is scrambling this week to make room for nearly 160 skinny huskies after an animal-control officer found the dogs starving to death at the home of a breeder.
Frank J. Rich, 53, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to 50 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. Unemployed since October, Rich told troopers he struggled to keep the dogs fed but had not asked for help from the shelter.
A trooper arrested Rich on Monday, finding 16 dead dogs stacked in a Conex shipping container and dozens more without food or water. Borough employees and volunteers -- including at least one local musher -- spent hours Monday collecting the emaciated animals and hauling them in a horse trailer and dog trucks to the borough shelter near Palmer.
Mat-Su animal control manager Richard Stockdale estimates 157 huskies have been impounded, including a straw-colored female that gave birth to six puppies as recently as Monday.
The bony huskies slept in quarantine beds or hunkered low, hugging the walls Tuesday as workers continued to weigh and medicate the dogs.
The shelter is running low on medicine, officials said.
The borough is home to countless rural dog owners, and it's not unusual for animal control officers to discover neglected animals. But the wave of dogs arriving from Rich's homestead is testing the limits of the new $5 million borough shelter building.
"This is the most dogs that they have impounded at one time, at least that anyone can remember, in the last 10 years," Stockdale said.
Even before the huskies arrived, the Mat-Su animal shelter had nearly as many adoptable dogs as it could hold, a spokeswoman for the borough said. The shelter was closed to the public Tuesday as the borough announced a sale on dog adoptions in hope of freeing space.
Short on supplies, the shelter is seeking donations of Hills Science Diet Advanced Fitness Original dog food, metal dog bowls, blankets, towels and material such as dry straw, tarps, zip ties and plywood that can be used to shelter the dogs.
Workers and employees stayed at the shelter until about 3:30 Tuesday morning checking the health of the new dogs, veterinarian Katrina Zwolinski said in the lobby, her blue hoodie flecked with dog hair. Barks echoed from every corner of the building as a 3-month-old tabby pawed at Zwolinski's elbow from a nearby cage
The huskies are in "horrible" condition, she said.
"All of the dogs have long hair, and you can still see the hip bones. ... Their spines. Their ribs. They're all very, very thin," Zwolinski said.
The dogs appear to be a mix of Siberian huskies and malamutes, she said. "They're not being bred for mushers. They're being bred for pets."
TIPSTER ALERTs AUTHORITIES
Rich, who lives in a remote cabin in the Montana Creek area near Mile 92 of the Parks Highway, was cited in 2007 for unsanitary conditions at his kennel, according to the borough.
The latest investigation began when a tipster called Mat-Su animal control officer Darla Tampke Erskine on Saturday to report that Rich had quit his job and that 75 of his dogs had died, according to a trooper affidavit.
Borough officials knew Rich has had as many as 170 dogs in the past and say he has a kennel license pending to house 168 dogs, according to troopers.
Erskine drove to Rich's property on Sunday, finding more than 100 dogs, troopers said. Most were emaciated and dehydrated with little or no body fat. There were no food or water dishes in sight, troopers said.
Erskine obtained a search warrant to remove the dogs and retuned on Monday with trooper Shayne Calt.
Calt said he found the huskies thin and shivering in zero-degree temperatures. "The dogs had eaten a large part of the fresh snow around them and some did not have any fresh snow remaining, indicating that they had not been given water for an extended period of time."
"I observed several of the dogs eating their own feces," Calt wrote.
All told, at least 22 animals were dead, including two in the bed of a truck and two still chained to their kennels, the trooper said.
Rich, who said in court Tuesday that he most recently worked as a "maintenance manager," told troopers he quit his job in October and was struggling to feed the animals.
Asked why he has so many animals, Rich told troopers he breeds and sells the dogs, according to the affidavit.
"Rich stated that he prioritizes the food by giving it to the puppies first, because he sells the puppies," Calt wrote.
The breeder told Palmer Magistrate Craig Condie that he was unemployed for about four months out of the past year and made about $24,000 in 2010.
He was being held at Mat-Su Pretrial Facility. Condie entered a not-guilty plea on Rich's behalf, with bail set at $5,000. The breeder will not be allowed to take care of any dogs as a condition of his release.
The huskies seized from his home aren't immediately available for adoption. Some are in such bad shape they'll likely have to be killed, according to the trooper report.
Stockdale, the borough animal control manager, said decisions about euthanizing and adopting the dogs are pending.
Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334.