Willow dog breeder's animal-cruelty sentence upheld

PALMER -- The Alaska Court of Appeals last week denied an appeal filed by Frank Rich, the Willow man who had about 170 neglected huskies seized by the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in 2011.

Authorities responding to a complaint in January 2011 found at least 19 dead dogs at Rich's Montana Creek kennel. Many of the others were emaciated, dehydrated and without food or water. Twenty to 50 more were later euthanized for health or behavioral problems.

Taken to the Mat-Su animal shelter and distributed to rescue groups, the skin-and-bone survivors required intense socialization -- some through a program at the Hiland Mountain women's prison -- before they could go to new homes.

Palmer District Court Judge David Zwink in January 2012 sentenced Rich to six months in jail and demanded he pay $59,040 to cover the shelter's costs for caring for all those dogs. Zwink also banned him from owning or caring for animals for a decade -- the length of his probation.

Rich filed an appeal a few months later. He wanted to pay his restitution using a share of the roughly $121,000 in donations that poured into the Mat-Su shelter after media reports publicized the state of his dogs and the suddenly overwhelmed shelter.

His probation was too long and the animal-owning ban unnecessarily harsh, Rich also claimed.

The answer came last week from the three-judge appeals court panel: No way.

The panel upheld Zwink's sentence in an opinion handed down Sept. 3.

"We find Rich's argument unpersuasive," the opinion reads, referring to Rich's bid to dig into a share of the public's donations to pay his court-ordered bills.

News of the unsuccessful appeal was met with celebration by Advocates for Dog and Puppy Wellness, a Wasilla nonprofit that works with the Mat-Su shelter and helped get 50 or 60 of the huskies and malamutes socialized enough that they could be adopted out.

Rich could have gotten help at the shelter but chose not to, board president Julie Johnson said Monday.

"We have a shelter for a reason and that's when people are down on their luck. It's like a shelter for people only it's a shelter for animals," Johnson said. "The resource was always there, always available and he didn't even ask."

About 10 volunteers came to the shelter several times a week for the "husky social hour" that Johnson -- a shelter volunteer and later on-call employee -- set up to get the fearful dogs used to people and to walking on a leash instead of spinning and frantically trying to escape.

It took eight months to adopt out the last Frank Rich dog.

"You had to pick the right people because these dogs, they're never going to be a normal dog," she said. "They'll learn to be affectionate, they'll learn to walk on a leash but they're always going to have a flight instinct in them."

Rich, who ran a kennel, had apparently struggled for years to care for his dogs.

According to last week's opinion, Rich said the borough euthanized at least 24 of his dogs before the January 2011 seizure of his animals.

He was cited several times in 2007 for failing to provide sanitary enclosures for his dogs and failing to re-register a kennel, and was ordered to reduce the number of dogs in his kennel. In 2010, borough animal control determined Rich was over the limit of dogs set by his kennel license.

The borough veterinarian who treated the dogs in January 2011 testified they were dehydrated and starving, possibly without food for a week.

Many had various untreated medical conditions, including parasites; pressure sores from protruding bones repeatedly rubbing on the ground; testicular and mammary cancer with large tumors, some of which had erupted; and urinary tract infections.

Rich told an Alaska state trooper he thought approximately six dogs had died; he said they had starved or frozen to death. Rich explained that he had quit his job and was having a hard time feeding the dogs, and that he prioritized food for the puppies because he could sell them, the opinion says.

Rich's appeal of his restitution and probation made reference to a prior ruling on another animal cruelty case that began in 1999.

The Mahan case involved a Soldotna woman found with more than 130 sick animals on her property, including nine horses, two llamas, 10 cows, 18 sheep, a goat, 34 pigs, 21 dogs, 10 cats, 18 assorted birds and a number of rabbits, according to the appeals court opinion.

The court in that case ruled a defendant isn't entitled to credit or a refund of donations for their victims. Rich, in his appeal, called that ruling a mistake and urged the court to overrule it.

"He argues he did not cause the Matanuska-Susitna Borough animal shelter any expenses or damages because it received donations covering all of its costs -- in fact, he argues, it was enriched by Rich's crime because it took in more donations than it cost to care for his dogs," the opinion states.

The appeals panel, however, said Rich failed to convince them they made the wrong decision and upheld that part of the sentence.

As for his probation, Rich argued he was entitled to less time as a first-time offender who served a stiff jail sentence and that other animal-cruelty offenders were allowed to keep some animals.

The court ruled the probationary period and the animal restriction were justified because Rich had a long history of neglect, had operated a commercial kennel and had allowed some of his dogs to die.

Zwink was correct when he found Rich's conduct was a "worst offense" and that he had a hoarding problem so severe it was an addiction that hurt others, the Sept. 3 opinion states.

"The trial court found that Rich had hoarded dogs, could not care for them, and could not stop himself from accumulating more dogs. This finding is supported by the record and justifies the probation condition that he not own any animals."

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at