PALMER -- Topaz, a skittish little husky with one blue eye and one brown one, stuck to the corner Monday, taking in the scene during socialization time at the Mat-Su Borough Animal Care Facility.
But Lucy, Simba, Loco and the other rescued dogs at Husky Social Hour took full advantage of their time out of kennels. It was raining, so they played indoors. They romped with one another. They peeked out the window. And at times, they nuzzled up to the people in their midst.
It's a remarkable turnaround for dogs that shelter workers say were sick, starving and abnormally shy when they were seized in January in a mass of nearly 160 huskies taken from the home of a Valley breeder. Counting puppies born afterward, the tally of forfeited dogs totaled 168, said Richard Stockdale, Mat-Su's animal care and regulation manager, who was just a week on the job when the breeding operation was shut down.
As of Monday, only about 40 dogs still needed to find homes, said Julie Johnson, a shelter assistant who has been a leader in the husky adoption effort.
"There isn't a dog here that can't be rehabilitated," Johnson said. She maxed out her allotted work hours as a part-timer during the frantic days when the dogs first jammed the shelter, and has been continuing as a volunteer.
Another volunteer, Joan Narsavich, was coaxing one of the shyest dogs to play. Her 11-year-old son James, also a volunteer, named the pretty little female Lucy.
"They love other dogs," Narsavich said. "It's the people that's the challenge."
About 35 to 40 dogs that were sick with cancer or other serious health issues were euthanized, Stockdale said. More than 40 puppies were turned over to Alaska Dog and Puppy Rescue. Eleven have gone to homes in the Lower 48 through rescue groups and others are headed there. Now the shelter is making a push to get the rest into homes.
A TROUBLED BREEDER
The dogs came from the breeding operation of Frank J. Rich, 54, who lives in a remote cabin in the Montana Creek area. The borough cited him in 2007 for unsanitary conditions at his kennel. At the time of the raid, he had a pending license application to house 168 dogs.
A tipster called a Mat-Su animal control officer in early January to report that Rich had quit his job and that 75 of his dogs had died.
Officer Darla Tampke Erskine drove out to his property on a Sunday and found more than 100 dogs. Most were emaciated. A trooper who returned with Erskine the next day, Jan. 10, saw some of the dogs eating their own feces. With no water bowls, they were eating snow.
Rich told troopers he had quit his job in October and was struggling to feed his animals. He said he fed the puppies first because he could sell them, a trooper wrote in an affidavit.
Troopers initially put the number of dead dogs at 22 but Stockdale said it ended up being 19. Most were stacked in a steel shipping container. The living animals were seized.
Rich was charged with 50 misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty. His case is pending in Palmer. It's set for trial in June.
Stockdale said that as long as he is manager, Rich will never get another borough kennel license.
AN INUNDATED SHELTER
The Valley animal shelter already was near capacity when the rescued huskies arrived. Pens for livestock were turned into spots for dogs, four per stall. Bunnies and guinea pigs were moved into the hall to make room. Many dogs were housed outside. Some were sent to the Point MacKenzie prison farm.
Staff members worked into the night those first days. So did volunteers. In December, before the raid, volunteers tallied 629 hours. In January, they put in 1,682, Stockdale said. And it's been like that ever since.
Almost as soon as word got out about the husky influx, help poured in. Students at Alaska Job Corps built about 75 dog houses. Lowe's, Home Depot and Spenard Builders Supply donated lumber. Alaska Mill and Feed donated Science Diet dog food, bales of straw and food bowls. Individuals gave food and blankets and dog toys and money.
In all, the shelter received more than $121,000 in monetary donations, some of it earmarked for the huskies, some for whatever the shelter needed. Some of the money is being used to cover plane fare for those being sent Outside, which can top $400.
Many of the dogs are Siberians and malamutes, bigger than typical sled dogs. But many arrived dramatically underweight. Lucy was just 30 pounds. She now weighs 48 pounds.
The dogs all had to be weighed to create documentation for the criminal case against Rich. They needed vaccines. They suffered from parasites and had to be dewormed. Some needed IV fluids. Many couldn't eat solid food at first. Dawn Isbill, another volunteer, remembers struggling to pour water for the outside dogs during howling January winds.
Everything seemed strange to the dogs at first. They crouched about on their bellies because the hard linoleum floor was so unfamiliar. The sound of a sink running would set them off. They cowered in corners. They didn't know what dog treats were, or toys. Some still don't. Narsavich said she's spent weeks just trying to get Lucy to make eye contact and accept being petted.
Johnson started holding Husky Social Hour in late March three nights a week at the shelter to help the dogs acclimate to people.
Monica Pettit and daughter EmmaLee, 13, are volunteers who already adopted one of the huskies, Bonita, who they said is a sweet, good dog.
"They are a work in progress," volunteer Shane Preuit, 14, said at Monday's event. It was disheartening to see animals so mistreated, he said. But he's noticed changes in just a month. During social hour Monday, he was walking a male named Richie on a leash while the females ran around loose.
Loco, a skittish female that he's been working with, stuck by him most of the evening.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
How to adopt rescued huskies The rescued huskies can be adopted for $17. They come spayed or neutered and vaccinated and will have a microchip for identification. They tend to bolt, so need to be kept on leash when outside. The Mat-Su Borough Animal Care Facility is open 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. It's located at 9470 E. Chanlyut Circle. For more information, go to www.matsu gov.us/animalcare.Audio slide show: Husky social hour
Photos: Dogs rescued from breeder
Scores of near-starved dogs jam Valley shelter (1/12/11)
By LISA DEMER