Refuge or horror? Animal sanctuary draws worldwide attention
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Steve Markwell feeds a Labrador retriever-mix puppy at his Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks. “It seems like a setup, I know,” he said. “But this is the reality. This is what I do every day.” Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News.

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

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FORKS –– Four knocks on the door jamb from Steve Markwell's big right hand quiets the barking dogs inside the pink warehouse that houses his Olympic Animal Sanctuary.

Inside the door is 125 dogs, many of which have been condemned to death.

“We save dogs you'd rather see dead” is the motto of the sanctuary.

Criticism over the condition in which those dogs are being kept has fallen hard on Markwell over the past year. A petition has been circulated to city, county and state officials demanding the sanctuary's closure.

A Facebook page contains pictures reportedly from the sanctuary along with thousands of comments calling its closure at 1021 Russell Road, in the Forks city limit.

(EDITOR'S NOTE:' This story is accompanied by a sidebar, "Last chance for bad dogs" —

Forks City Hall gets multiple calls daily demanding action.

“There's not a day that goes by that somebody doesn't call,” Mayor Bryon Monohon said.

Most recently, Markwell's sanctuary was featured in a report dubbed “Sanctuary of Sorrow” that aired on Seattle ABC affiliate KOMO-TV and included photos reportedly taken by former volunteers who were interviewed and called the sanctuary “a torture chamber.”

'Living nightmare'

“He's lost track of what he's doing,” said Patti Winn, a former volunteer who left the shelter in spring 2012. She also was interviewed in the KOMO report, and her photos were used in it.

“He's created a living nightmare for these animals,” Winn said.

Winn said the conditions in which she saw the dogs saddened her so much she quit working with Markwell.

Markwell, who allowed the Peninsula Daily News inside his shelter, said he is the victim of a smear campaign based on “vendettas” from former volunteers.

The call for the shelter's closure has elicited intense passion from animal activists from around the world who are appalled by what they've seen of the dogs' reported living conditions.

“He has had a couple of death threats that we have investigated,” Forks Police Administrator Rick Bart said. “These people are very dedicated to what they believe in.”

Markwell said the petitions, Internet and email campaigns, and what he called a “completely one-sided news report” have worsened his situation by worrying donors who have since dwindled their support.

“It's virtually nonexistent at this point,” he said.

With the campaign against him intensifying, Markwell said donations have fallen from the several thousand a month he was getting a year ago to hundreds a month now, making it harder to provide the dogs adequate food and shelter.

“There's no good outcome unless I can keep the place going and improve it,” he said.

Markwell would not allow the KOMO film crews inside his shelter.

“I didn't want to feed the negativity that's going to come at me because of it,” he said.

Will to live

Markwell said he is driven to save the lives of dogs that have been neglected, abused, found wandering feral or those condemned to death for attacks on humans.

He considers his work at the sanctuary “taking on the responsibilities of others.”

Regardless of standard practices of society, Markwell said, the dogs he takes in deserve the chance to live out their natural lives.

“If this animal has the will to stay alive, then I need to do whatever I can to make that possible,” Markwell said. “If they have problems, it's only because of what humans have done to them.”

But his critics worry that the condition in which he keeps the dogs only serves to lengthen lives of misery.

“Those are not lives. Those dogs are in hell,” Winn said.

Inside the sanctuary

Through the front door of the 4,000-square-foot shelter, a feral smell of dog hair and the ammonia of urine greets the nose, though not overpowering.

The place is dirty, but most of the dogs act healthy, some snarling, some meekly retreating to the back of their cages and others excitedly jumping for attention.

Mario, a little yellow dog that was found running wild in Memphis, Tenn., bares his teeth, interpreting eye contact as a challenge.

Another dog, Nala, turns her head to the side.

Markwell also turns his head to the opposite side to show the Rhodesian Ridgeback, sentenced to death for biting faces, that he means her no harm.

“A lot of these dogs just show really subtle signs when they're stressed,” he said, “signs that people didn't pick up on. And now they're here.”

The dogs — some skinny, some overweight — are kept in 5-foot-by-5-foot kennels, some kept in pairs, others solo.

Straw lines the floor of each cage, and each dog has bowls for water and kibble, some full, some empty, some tipped over. Markwell said he doesn't feed them every day but fills bowls they eat from over “a couple days.”

The wall across from the main kennel area has separate rooms with sliding glass doors.

Markwell used to sleep in one of these rooms but now lives in a horse trailer in front of the sanctuary.

One held a white pit bull and 10 Labrador-mix puppies recently turned over to Markwell to rehabilitate after they were found orphaned on the Lower Elwha Klallam reservation.

Nursing puppies

The pit bull is nursing the puppies, though Markwell feeds them bottles every day.

“It seems like a setup, I know,” he said, holding a puppy in one tooth-scarred arm while feeding it a bottle with the other.

“Here's this big softie bottle-feeding puppies. But this is the reality. This is what I do every day.”

He plans to raise the puppies until they are old enough to be adopted. One recently became ill, resulting in a $1,350 treatment by a local veterinarian.

“This is just something I do once in awhile to help out with local animals,” he said.

Upstairs are coyote hybrid dogs that are still feral and difficult to train. They are primarily kept in travel crates.

“I use the crates for the feral dogs, who are afraid of being exposed and feel safer in more confined spaces,” Markwell said.

“There are some cases where I have dogs in a crate that I would like to have in a kennel, but I just don't have enough kennels. But if they won't go in the crate, or if they hate being in the crate, I can't keep them in a crate.”

The sanctuary has a yard on the side in which dogs are let out for exercise.

“Ask a guy in prison, 'How long into your sentence should we kill you?'” Markwell said. “How do you quantify suffering?”

No boiler plate

There is no boiler plate for the conditions in which Markwell should be caring for his dogs, experts said.

“We don't have any standards for what a sanctuary is supposed to look like,” City Attorney Rod Fleck said.

Fleck said he was told the county has no jurisdiction over the shelter because it is within the city limit.

State laws regulate for-profit kennels and breeding facilities but not nonprofit sanctuaries, according to Hector Castro, spokesman at the state Department of Agriculture. The state veterinarian's office is in the agriculture department.

Since Markwell's facility falls outside state codes, Castro said, local ordinances would apply.

“It really is only the local authority that could do anything,” said Castro, whose office has fielded calls from Markwell's critics.

In some jurisdictions, Castro said, a tree for shelter and the ability to access water are considered sufficient care.

Kayla Hansen, who works at Olympic NW Veterinary Services in Forks, is

One of the veterinarian offices to which Markwell brings sick dogs is Olympic NW Veterinary Services in Forks.

“Well, you don't usually bring healthy dogs to the vet,” said Kayla Hansen, who works there, when asked about the health of the dogs from the shelter.

“Their nails aren't always trimmed, they smell and need a bath, but I wouldn't say they look underweight or unhealthy.”

City codes have no teeth

“He came to Forks for a reason, and that's because the city's animal control laws have no teeth,” Police Administrator Rick Bart said.

Forks police investigated Markwell for possible animal-cruelty charges in October last year. A citation for animal neglect was written but never issued.

According to Fleck, the violation, written because officers found a dog that may have been malnourished, would have been a misdemeanor.

The city opted not to pursue that charge, he said, because officers entered the sanctuary based on photographs submitted by Markwell's critics.

“When was that picture taken? Where was that picture taken?” Fleck asked. “I'm not even sure we had probable cause to go in.”

Said Bart: “There was a stark difference between what we saw when we went in and what was in those pictures from six months before that.”

Another problem with pressing the charge, Bart said, would have been seizing the dogs and finding a place to house them during the investigation and possible trial.

“The city itself is between a rock and a hard place because we have no place to put them,” Bart said.

The city is also stuck regarding Markwell's property rights, Monohon said.

“We can't just go into somebody's property and tell them what they can do with it,” Monohon said. “He, like everybody else, has rights.”

A new hope?

Markwell hopes to be able to move his shelter from Forks to a larger rural property near Joyce.

He has a lease option offered on a 10-acre property but said he doesn't have the money to build a structure on it.

He owes money to several veterinarians, he said, and most of the dogs' food comes through donations, either of kibble or excess meat.

“At this point, I have very little support left,” Markwell said. “So it's not getting any better.”

He said the 2 percent payroll tax increase that kicked in with the federal government's sequestration cuts last January dried up a number of small donations his sanctuary previously received.

He also has had fewer volunteers helping with the shelter — partly, he said, because of the former volunteers who have mounted an Internet campaign against him.

An advisory board of directors that formed to help Markwell raise funds, manage the facility and plan for the sanctuary's long term was disbanded earlier this year.

Markwell said members dropped off the board as they received harassment from his opponents, and he eventually decided to disband it.

Although he has stopped accepting dogs, Markwell is looking at a long future with the ones he does have, believing that without him, their only future is to be euthanized.

“Even without taking in any more dogs, I'm in this for the next 16, 18 years,” Markwell said.


Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at

Last modified: October 06. 2013 11:52AM
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