A wolf walks around the yard area Thursday afternoon at Wolf Country USA outside Palmer. Wolf Country USA has been in business for 25 years and has had its wolves featured in the Sean Penn movie Into the Wild. (ROBERT DeBERRY/Frontiersman)
Posted: Wednesday, June 22, 2011 12:23 pm
By Scott Christiansen |
The state's newfound zeal for prosecuting Alaskans who keep wolf hybrids in captivity made news again last week when warrants were served at Wolf Country USA, the wolf-viewing business north of Palmer on the Glenn Highway. Among the Alaskans relieved to see the conspicuous tourist trap busted was Anchorage attorney Ronald West-who was prosecuted last year for illegally keeping a wolf hybrid in the city. West's own wolf-dog-an animal named "Gringo"-is now set to be exiled from Alaska under an agreement brokered in an Anchorage courtroom.
West didn't talk much about Gringo when the Press contacted him this week, but he did confirm he had urged state officials to investigate Werner Shuster and Wolf Country USA. West says he's satisfied to see that Shuster's roadside attraction has come under investigation, but doubts his prodding advanced the state's case.
"They didn't learn anything from me that was not public knowledge," West says. "Shuster has been running a puppy mill up there for years. All I did was say, ‘Hey, this information is publicly available-just do your job.'"
West was on the road Monday near Glennallen and the phone reception sounded sketchy. During a second call Tuesday, West described his location as "in the middle of Canada"-during both calls he declined to discuss his own prosecution, referring questions to his lawyer Kevin Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald was in the middle of a trial this week. He returned calls, but the phone tag game didn't garner on-the-record comments. It would appear West is traveling specifically to find Gringo a suitable home in a jurisdiction where it's legal to keep hybrid wolves. The agreement brokered in court gives West until mid-September to do that.
West's case file is six volumes thick, remarkable for two misdemeanors-but not so remarkable to anyone who has observed West in court. He was one of at least three attorneys to represent Deborah Allen, the Anchorage cat lady who ran Chateau Pampered Purr. In October 2009 the city confiscated more than 80 animals from Allen's home and a duplex where she ran a rescue shelter. Allen, despite facing only misdemeanors, clung to a defense for more than a year without making a plea deal. West lost Allen's case at trial. His client maintained until the end she had not been cruel to any of the animals found when the city raided her overrun properties.
The prosecution of Ronald West began in June 2010, while West was actively defending Allen and attempting to get her cat-owning rights back. Allen's case was already drawn out, but the confiscation of Gringo didn't help. City cops served a warrant and searched West's home, including his office, paper files and computer. The search was an effort to figure out if West was marketing wolf hybrids or otherwise violating animal care laws. Anchorage Police Detective Jackie Conn, the same cop who led the raid on Allen's cat shelters, applied for the search warrant against West. This led to dust-ups in court, but also to a civil suit West agreed to drop only after state officials cut the deal that would put Gringo in exile. The state never admitted wrongdoing, and West never wavered from his belief the hybrid laws and regulations are badly written or improperly enforced.
"I struck a deal with them, but the terms had nothing to do with the legality of the [wolf hybrid] regulations," West says.
West maintains the state has yet to prove a legal definition of a hybrid wolf. He shares that position with Shuster, who told this reporter in 2001 that a Chihuahua and a wild wolf share nearly identical DNA. (Alaska's wolf hybrid laws were being reformed at the time of that interview.) West has maintained all along that Gringo was kept fair and square. Under state law (and an accompanying set of regulations) a wolf hybrid registered before January 23, 2002 can be kept in captivity. The animal must be neutered, vaccinated against rabies, and micro-chipped. The owner must hold a permit from the state.
West has maintained for nearly a year that he is charged with keeping a hybrid without a permit. He pled guilty to that charge last month. He agreed to pay $50 and drop his own civil suit against the city and the state. He agreed to one year of probation. He must prove to a judge he found a suitable and legal out-of-state home for Gringo before taking custody of the animal and shipping it off. West also agreed to not file another lawsuit even if he believes the current agreement results in harm to himself or Gringo. Both the state and West agreed to drop arguments about which side should pay for the food, kenneling and veterinary bills that have racked up in the 11 months since the animal was confiscated. (Presumably, West pays the private veterinary bills and the city of Anchorage pays the fees from the shelter it owns.)
In return, the state dropped reckless endangerment charges brought against West because Gringo, allegedly, got loose and killed a Pomeranian in West's neighborhood near Lake Otis Parkway and 68th Avenue. Charging documents named Gringo as the animal that killed a neighbor's dog (which was chained at the time) and was later confiscated. West contended in court that prosecutors needed to prove Gringo got loose and killed the Pomeranian. West was known to have more than one wolf-like dog on the property, but says-from somewhere on the road in Canada-he plans to move out of state.