A lot has been said about Steve Markwell and his shelter for last-resort dogs, Olympic Animal Sanctuary (OAS). Media around the country, from People Magazine to public radio to the LA Times, have lauded Markwell for his innovative work handling primarily fear-aggressive and feral dogs most ordinary shelters would not dare keep alive, let alone try to rehabilitate. Critics, most recently on a Facebook page, have accused Markwell of—you name it—hoarding, abusing, starving, and profiting from his death-row dogs. At least one person has suggested he killed several feral coyote hybrids he took into OAS last summer after being contacted for help from a shelter out of state. I asked the creators of the FB page for an interview over a week ago and still have not received a response.
Sunday, April 14, I traveled to OAS, in Forks, Washington, with two professional dog trainers from Western Washington, Judith and David Bell. They specialize in working with “growly dogs” that have mostly fear-based aggression issues, and they are widely respected in Western Washington, working regularly with dogs and their people on Bainbridge Island and across King, Kitsap, Clallam, and Jefferson Counties.
I had never met Markwell but had interviewed him and researched OAS for a story (published April 9, 2013), with the intention of doing a followup piece inside OAS. Lacking a staff, camera crew, helicopter, and funding, I made the trip when I was able, which happened to be last weekend. I called Markwell Saturday night to ask if the Bells and I could visit the next day, and he obliged us on short notice. Arriving at lunchtime at the front of OAS, I took in the scene: an unpaved rain-ravaged muddy area with a massive pile of straw in front of an unadorned industrial building with a “dangerous dog” warning sign on the front door. OAS is housed in a former logging truck shop. Markwell and a volunteer were cleaning metal water buckets when we walked up.
The dogs inside the building, housed mostly in back-to-back kennels in the main center of the room, greeted us with a cacophony of barks. Some snarled, a few cowered, and some perked up and jockeyed for friendly attention. The room was bright and not as smelly as I had expected considering Olympic Animal Sanctuary is home to 128 dogs. Each kennel had fresh water, a bowl of kibble, and straw-lined flooring. Most of the dogs were paired in the kennels, but some were alone. The single-dog kennels were 5-by-5 feet, and the doubles were twice that size. Many of the dogs were chewing on turkey neck treats.
On the periphery there were dogs in crates, some stacked two high. Some of these areas were unlit, squalid, and through my human eyes disturbing. Many of the dogs from these crates were the most vicious barkers, and they made it clear they did not want human attention. Markwell explained that many of the crated dogs have severe problems, such as intense resource guarding, severe fear of and/or aggression toward other dogs, or paralyzing fear of open exposure. His ultimate goal is to work with them until they are able to be moved into kennels.
Several small rooms with sliding doors ran along one wall, across from the main kennels. They were more sound-proof areas about 7 by 9 feet in dimension. The room at the end contained three dogs and Markwell’s bed. He had told me he sleeps in a kennel, and I asked to see it. To call it bare bones would be extravagant.
Why does he sleep in a kennel, I asked. Allowing dogs to hang out with him in close contact in a nonthreatening situation is part of his training process. He explained that he rotates dogs, depending on their stage of rehabilitation, so that ones who would benefit from the indirect contact get that kind of trust-building socialization. I asked Markwell if he has ever regretted having a dog sleep in his room, and he said he has woken up having his foot bitten. “I shake it off and go back to sleep.” His scarred arms confirm what he told me before about having been bitten hundreds of times. Many of the dogs eventually snuggle up on the bed. “Most of them, no matter what they’ve been through, want some kind of connection with people,” he told me.
The other reason that Markwell sleeps in a kennel is that the building doesn’t have a bedroom, and he hasn’t wanted to spend the money he gets for the dogs to build one. It doesn’t have a kitchen either, so he grabs food on the fly. When I interviewed him for my first article he was catching a cheap late dinner out.
Meeting the Coyote Hybrids
When we went upstairs to meet the coyote hybrids, Markwell suggested I keep them in my peripheral vision and not try to touch them. “They are feral animals, and unlike with domesticated, socialized dogs, they will interpret smiling as baring your teeth and direct eye contact as a challenge,” he explained.
The simple upstairs room has medium lighting and a plywood floor covered in straw. Three of the walls are partially lined with crates, some closed and some open. Three coyote dogs greeted me with suspicious interest as we entered. I sat next to Markwell on the floor, letting the canines sniff me over. I got a few tongue flicks on my hand and was treated to a high compliment when a skittish boy named Lester laid down nearby and closed his eyes. Waldo eventually took a nap too, but Wanda stared from a distance. Markwell explained that she has not allowed humans to touch her since her capture from her wild pack. “She was terrorized by a trainer with something to prove who wrestled her to the ground in an attempt to assert his dominance. That was her first physical contact with a human. When I brought her here I got worried because for weeks she wouldn’t come out of her crate. I would clean it with a pole. Eventually I took the top off, and she came out. She’s never gone back in,” said Markwell.
Markwell explained that he gives all of the dogs in the room time out of their crates in shifts and groupings that get along. Four of the dogs in the room are American Eskimos seized from a puppy mill that was shut down. “There were hundreds of dogs there. They would breed the females twice a year until they died. A lot of them were in stacked shopping carts.” He explained that he has found placements for four of the Eskies he took and hopes to soon place two more, leaving two at OAS. They peeked out of the crates as we talked.
Meeting the Wolf Hybrids
The OAS property has three large grassy fenced areas. One is home to two wolf mixes. The Bells and I scratched the head of Kodiak, a large friendly male who had no history of aggression but had been surrendered because he was too much to deal with for the person who bought him from an unscrupulous breeder. The other wolf dog, a smaller female named Jill, was friendly but high strung and paced in front of us. The two have access inside but spend most of their time out. Markwell explained, “They are pretty well-socialized, but they see humans as their equals and will knock you down if they want.” He offered to let us into their area with the understanding that they might push us over. We decided we were content scratching Kodiak through the chain-link fence. Markwell explained that he separates them from the dogs because, like any wolf, they would kill the dogs if given the chance.
We asked Markwell how often the dogs get outdoor time in the other yards. He said for the ones who want to go outside he gives them shifts (optimally once a day) as often as he can manage, which is less lately because of his lack of staff help due to money troubles. Other dogs, he explained, cower and run for cover if placed outside. These are the dogs so traumatized they feel frightened and vulnerable in exposed situations—the ones in the crates. “This is something that many people have difficulty understanding. Many damaged dogs come in agoraphobic. They want to hide. People see crated dogs and they think it’s cruel, but it is what these dogs choose,” said Markwell.
Judith Bell told me later, “As a trainer one of the biggest problems I have with people that have fearful dogs is that they try to fix the problem by exposing the dog to its fear too fast too soon. This floods the dog and triggers its fear response, reinforcing unwanted behavior. You want to avoid triggers that push dogs beyond their threshold point as you decondition fear. I try to help my clients understand that counter-conditioning work needs to be gradual and depends on the needs of the particular dog.”
I asked Markwell, as I had before, about accusations of hoarding. He explained that he has not taken additional dogs for the last six months, except for a couple he had previously committed to taking. He expressed frustration that shelters and individuals pressure him repeatedly to “save” their animals. As before, he told me he wants to find no-kill placements for his dogs who can handle it so he can downsize, and he thinks with the work he has done a few more of his dogs might be ready for adoption into regular homes. He has hired two full-time workers to help him haul out some things he has stored at OAS to make more room for additional kennels to provide the option of more space for his crated dogs. With financial help, he hopes to continue employing staff to do daily maintenance, such as cleaning and feeding.
Given that some of the classic signs of sanctuary hoarding, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), are not saying no to new dogs, not allowing outsiders in, and not disclosing the number of animals you have, Markwell does not fit the profile of a hoarder. The Bells told me they regard Markwell as a person who has been overwhelmed with requests from around the country for help with tough-case dogs who is struggling to care for them because of dwindling funds and a resulting lack of consistent staffing.
As for abuse, based on my observations and those of the Bells, the traumatized dogs in Markwell’s care trust and love him. And to witness him speak about, advocate for, and interact with them shows his devotion to them. Markwell can, without hesitation, name and tell the history of any dog in the sanctuary you ask him about. His undeniable bond with the dogs in his care is quite a gift when you consider their backgrounds—histories of being beaten, chained, tormented, and abandoned; putting people in emergency care; killing other dogs and animals; and/or living feral lives isolated from people.
Nala, a large Rhodesian Ridgeback relinquished from her family because of her biting, stood up to greet Markwell as we walked by her kennel. I took an unstaged photograph of their affectionate hello.
David Bell, who, like me, had not met Markwell before, said this about him after our visit to OAS: “He is well-intentioned, good-hearted, and very skilled with animals. I think some of the dogs in crates is a product of him having been asked to do too much without enough help. All of these dogs were damaged before they arrived at OAS.”
Judith Bell said, “If Steve were adequately funded and properly documented I think the work he is doing could be groundbreaking in animal behavioral science.”
The dogs at OAS looked well-fed to all three of us. See for yourself in photos. If you dont see water bowls it is because they were being cleaned. (Click photos to enlarge.)
Regarding the accusation that Markwell is benefitting financially and killing the coyote hybrids: enough said.
Did Markwell clean up for our arrival? I expect so; however, given that we gave him short notice on the weekend he couldn’t have done much. Maybe fresh straw was laid, and maybe bowls got cleaned out.
Why Take the Bad Dogs?
Judith Bell asked Markwell why he thinks it’s worth putting energy and money into OAS when most of its dogs will never reach a level of rehabilitation to be adoptable.
Markwell gave this response: “I don’t think these animals should be morally accountable for what they do. This is a problem of human creation. It is irresponsible to punish or kill them; they deserve other considerations. I don’t like it when people say money could be diverted to shelters that can adopt out. OAS is a last-resort sanctuary. We’re all trying to help animals; here we’re helping the ‘bad’ ones.”
The Bottom Line: OAS in Jeopardy
Markwell needs money. A perfect storm of financial misfortune has befallen OAS, from a payroll tax change instituted in January, to rising supplies and operating costs, to losing some staff, to the sluggish economy. Markwell needs help to keep OAS going—help right now.
The good news for his dogs is that a donor, Eileen Schmitz, has offered Markwell a 10-acre property on a zero-payment lease arrangement in Clallam County. Markwell’s biggest challenge is raising the funds to set up a new facility there, which he estimates will cost about $100,000.
The other good news is that several people—Eileen Schmitz, David and Judith Bell, Hope and Jim Williams, and others—have just formed an advisory committee to assist Markwell with fundraising, management, and long-term planning, all things they believe he should not have to do himself given how much work he needs to do with the dogs in his care. Yesterday, April 15, as a start this group donated $1,500 to provide OAS with immediate assistance.
As we were leaving OAS, three young women who work in different animal rescue organizations in Seattle arrived. They had made the five-hour (each way) journey to Forks to help Markwell with chores. I asked them what motivated them to come all that way, and they all said that Steve had helped them in the past and they wanted to return the favor.
The Long-Term Outlook
Markwell is tired. He knows without more help he will lose OAS. And if OAS closes, he believes, as do the Bells and others I have spoken with in animal rescue, that the majority of the 128 dogs will be euthanized.
Currently Markwell estimates that he needs $4,000 a week to keep things running properly—at a better level of cleanliness and care than he has been able to provide for a while.
If Markwell can stabilize in his current situation, his next steps are to make a plan and raise funds for moving to the larger location with fewer dogs. He envisions the new facility starting out with a temporary large building with modular kennels.
“Every animal or two animals would have their own climate-controlled space with outdoor access and an automatic water supply. There would be sound-reducing features and laundry facilities to wash about 200 blankets a day.” Unlike the current building, which is difficult to clean because it is two stories, Markwell would make the new building one story for cleaning efficiency. “It would make it much easier to mop and wash down,” he said.
Want to donate to OAS? An account has just been created to accept direct donation deposits in Port Angeles, Washington, at First Federal Bank, 141 W. First Street, 360-452-6620. Mail or call in your donations for Olympic Animal Sanctuary. You also can donate through the OAS Donation Page or by sending a check to Olympic Animal Sanctuary, P.O. Box 3044, Port Angeles, WA 98362.
Read Part 3 of this series on OAS.
Read the latest on OAS: Olympic Animal Sanctuary Offers to Shut Down If Best Friends Animal Society Accepts Its Dogs
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- Part 3: What Now for Olympic Animal Sanctuary’s “Unadoptable” Dogs?
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Featured photo of OAS wolf hybrid Kodiak. All photos by Julie Hall, taken April 14, 2013.