Olympic Animal Sanctuary is No More

(Note:  This post is going to be uncharacteristic in a few ways:  It’s long, perhaps a little scattered and based on the assumption that readers know the back story.)

I want to start by addressing a few issues that I think have been widely misunderstood regarding Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks, WA.  For one, many people have expressed concern that some of the dogs at OAS did not have sufficient access to water.  A dog denied access to water will generally die after several days, depending on various conditions, so obviously the dogs at OAS had access to water.  Furthermore, since most owners do not feed a raw diet, they are likely unaware that raw fed dogs drink significantly less water than kibble fed dogs.  Just because an owner is accustomed to seeing his kibble fed dog lap up bowl after bowl of water every day, it doesn’t mean the raw fed dogs at OAS needed that same amount of water.

In addition, feeding large meals of raw food and then fasting the dog the following day is a method practiced by some raw feeders (see “Gorge and Fast”).  Although there was significant concern expressed over the typed report from the Forks police department that indicated the dogs were fed 3 times a week, an examination of the handwritten notes presumably made during the officer’s visit to OAS reveal a more accurate picture:

Portion of the typed report from the Forks PD, November 2012

Portion of the typed report from the Forks PD, November 2012

Portion of the handwritten notes attached to the Forks PD report, November 2012

Portion of the handwritten notes attached to the Forks PD report, November 2012

The handwritten notes appear to indicate OAS dogs were being fed 3 large raw meals a week, presumably followed by a day of fasting, and being supplemented with Merrick canned food, cases of which were photographed and included with the report.  Thin dogs were apparently being fed daily.  This seems to be a sound feeding plan and not indicative of animal abuse.

The main issues at OAS to my mind were the number of dogs relative to the facility’s resources and that some of the dogs were living in crates.  Many people accused Steve Markwell, owner of OAS, of being a hoarder.  A local reporter who visited OAS on short notice in April of this year wrote:

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.

[...]

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.

Allowing in members of the public on short notice to look around and take photographs is not behavior indicative of a hoarder.  Repeatedly expressing a desire for help and admitting that the sanctuary had too many animals (as seen in the typed police report snippet above as well as the one below) is also not indicative of hoarding.

Portion of Forks PD report, November 2012

Portion of Forks PD report, November 2012

Further evidence that dogs were not being hoarded at OAS is the fact that the number of dogs was reduced.  This is the opposite of hoarding.  This is a sound solution to a desperate situation.  But the numbers weren’t reduced quickly enough to satisfy what grew into an angry mob.  Steve was publicly labeled an animal abuser and the campaign to shut him down was like nothing I’ve ever witnessed in animal welfare.

Having read through the 450 pages of publicly available documents in the OAS case, it strikes me that Steve perhaps fell into the same situation that many rescuers do – stretching resources beyond their breaking point while trying to save lives.  Although it isn’t a topic widely discussed, there are some dogs and cats who are “rescued” by rescue groups and put into long term boarding situations which basically amount to life in a cage.  I call this the Black Hole of Rescue.  We don’t tend to hear about these situations until an official investigation is opened by legal authorities or some similar circumstance.  But it goes on all across the country and is more common than we’d like to think.

The dogs who fall into this Black Hole of Rescue have no meaningful social interaction with people or other dogs and receive little or no exercise.  Rescuers attempt to justify the quality of life of these dogs by telling themselves it’s temporary and it’s better than death.  The fact is, if shelter directors would start doing their jobs and stop killing animals, rescuers would not feel this overwhelming pressure to say yes to “just one more” animal when they have no resources and are unable to provide a reasonable quality of life.

While I make absolutely no claim to speak for Steve Markwell, it seems apparent to me via public documents that he may have justified dogs living in crates by telling himself it was temporary and it was better than death.  Throughout the public documents, he continually references his hopes and plans for expansion of the sanctuary.  He also states he knows he has more dogs than he can care for, that he wants to reduce the number and that he needs additional help.  He reiterates his primary concern that the dogs’ right to live not be compromised by anyone who takes them.  This does not indicate hoarding or animal abuse to me but rather someone who stretched himself too thin and is at a loss to correct the situation as quickly and efficiently as circumstance warrant.

Should Steve have stopped saying yes to “just one more” dog long before he had dogs living in crates?  Of course – as should all rescuers.  The fact that he didn’t stop saying yes is not indicative of a desire to hurt animals but rather places him in the exact same category as many rescuers operating today.  Some of those rescuers who have become overwhelmed with animals and recognize they need help are perhaps less likely to come forward and seek it in light of the lynch mob that pursued Steve Markwell, sending him, his mother and his friends violent threats.

It is a tragedy of epic proportions that we kill shelter animals for convenience in this country.  One of the human costs of this tragedy is the horrifying burden borne by rescuers who feel powerless to turn away from sentient beings in need when doing so will result in their death at the hands of those who should be protecting them.  This is one of the reasons I devote the bulk of this blog to shelter reform – it’s needed for pets and for people.  I care about both.

In addition to shelter reform, rescuers need to develop additional resources for handling dogs with aggression issues.  When rescues make a business of pulling dogs with unknown behavior histories from shelters, they are bound to get some with aggression issues.  Too many groups are unprepared for dealing with these issues and there are precious few sanctuaries for these dogs.  And now, there is one less.

When Steve had been pushed to the point of willingly giving up his life’s passion, he reached out to Best Friends for help, stating they were the only organization qualified to handle the type of dogs in his care.  A multi-million dollar sanctuary which appears to do an excellent job of providing a good quality of life to even the most aggressive dogs, Best Friends failed the OAS dogs.  Their response to Steve’s request for help was a non-starter and included the following condition:

“In our opinion and professional judgment, the best chance for ensuring the welfare of the dogs is for Mr. Markwell to open wide the doors of the facility and allow all qualified organizations to help immediately and unconditionally.”

In summary, BFAS was requiring that Mr. Markwell allow in anyone who calls themselves “qualified”, even if they were there because a pet psychic told them a dog at OAS said he wants to die. There appeared to be no standards for determining which groups were “qualified” to help in this unique situation and no one designated to make that determination.

BFAS was apparently requiring Mr. Markwell to unconditionally accept whatever these “qualified” organizations were willing to offer, even if it included killing the dogs. There did not appear to be any protections in place for the dogs in the BFAS response as far as protecting the dogs’ right to live.  I wrote to Best Friends seeking clarification on these issues but my letter was ignored.  BFAS quickly determined they would not be offering any help to the dogs at OAS.

Like the vast majority of people who have been following this story, I have never been to OAS or met Steve in person.  But I did work closely with him by phone for several days in 2011 when he helped us save a dog who had been abused at the Memphis pound.  Steve’s compassion impressed me and his commitment touched me deeply.  There are few people in life with whom I feel a personal connection and despite our relatively short amount of time spent together – long distance, Steve is one of those people.

When the powers that be in Memphis were turning cartwheels, making every effort to frustrate us in our endeavor to save Mario, Steve talked us through the situation.  MAS had us sign the paperwork to adopt Mario then dropped the bomb that we would have to get the feral dog out of the cage ourselves and none of the trained shelter staff would help.  If we failed, they would kill him.  Steve called and spoke with the MAS vet in order to plead for assistance in sedating Mario so he could be safely removed from the cage by rescuers.  She outright refused but Steve never gave up hope.  He spent all day on the phone, continually offering suggestions and working to prevent MAS from killing Mario.  At one particularly low point when it seemed like all our options were exhausted, Steve said, “Well we’ve done the paperwork and that has to count for something.  I want my dog.”  It was a profound moment for me.  This man, who surely had other things to do than to spend all day trying to throw a cog into the Memphis killing machine for a feral dog he’d never met, was committed to saving this dog’s life.  Eventually, with help from so many wonderful people, Mario was saved.  I will stand by Steve, anytime he is willing to have my support.

As for the dogs who have now been relinquished by Steve, it is my sincere hope that their right to live will be respected by anyone who takes them.  There are relatively few people with sufficient resources and expertise to handle aggressive dogs, which is how so many ended up at OAS, and I hope none of the dogs are killed.  The dogs have been pawns in this witch hunt game when they should have been the primary consideration.  Now the chips will fall and I hope an improved quality of life is provided to every single animal, in line with Steve’s vision for OAS.

I will close with three Olympic Animal Sanctuary videos that show Steve doing what he excels at – helping aggressive dogs.  As is evident in these videos, Steve’s skills are genuine and unique.  It pains me to think that these skills might be lost to the animal welfare community now.  And it pains me even more to know how that was orchestrated by hateful people who sought to tear someone down when he asked for help.  The rescue world is less today than it was yesterday.  I am sometimes ashamed to be human and this is one of those times.  But I am resolved to learn from this situation and to offer assistance whenever possible to good people who have become overwhelmed with too many rescue animals.  If you are in this situation, you will find a friend in me.  Let me know how I can help you.

An Uncomfortable Conversation

Note:  This post may be considered off topic by some and if you are interested only in how this post relates to the blog, skip to the final two paragraphs.

 

Access to healthcare is a right, not a privilege to my mind.  The U.S. is lagging shamefully behind such countries as Colombia, Iceland and Cuba when it comes to healthcare access.  To make matters worse, there is a social stigma associated with seeking mental healthcare in this country which reduces further the number of people who receive needed services.

The reason I bring this up is because there are likely many people in the animal welfare community, as there are in all walks of life, in need of mental healthcare.  And with severely diminished access due to governmental and societal failures, there are probably very few receiving the care they need.

I am not in any way qualified to diagnose the mental health status of individuals who target someone for harassment on social media outlets and create multiple fake profiles to “agree” with themselves.  But as a human being, I know it’s wrong.  And as a friend, I know that this tactic has caused serious pain to some individuals in the animal welfare community.

There is an expectation in social media venues that one must be willing to slough off the haters because no matter what, haters gonna hate, right?  I agree with that sentiment to an extent.  No one should expect that everyone is going to support all their viewpoints and speaking only for myself, I would not want that.  How else can I continue to grow and learn unless I am challenged to expand my worldview from time to time?  And I can certainly deal with the occasional odd duck.

But there is a difference between someone responding to an individual with a comment such as, “Have you ever considered X in addition to Y?” and someone making personal attacks and creating fake profiles to inflict greater hurt by posting additional personal attacks.  That difference is obvious to me as I suspect it is to many here.

What I am coming to is this:  I fear it is only a matter of time before someone in the animal welfare community commits suicide after being relentlessly targeted and harassed by these fake profile idiots.  That may sound extreme to some but on the other hand, how does anyone know it hasn’t already happened?  And if I don’t say it outright and plain, I’m just as guilty of stigmatizing mental health as those I blame for doing it.  So there it is.

The relevance to the blog is that I am going to start restricting comments from anyone I suspect of maintaining a fake profile for the purpose of harassing someone in the animal welfare community.  I don’t like limiting discussion but I don’t want my blog to be the place that someone who’s been victimized by these anonymous cowards comes only to find more of the same they are trying to escape elsewhere.  Differing opinions and disagreement is fine.  Targeting an individual for harassment, and especially using fake profiles to do it, is not.  There will be zero tolerance for this kind of thing from here on out – no warnings, no nothing.  If you engage in what I view as harassment, you are out of here.

And a personal note to anyone who has been targeted by these fake profile asshats – you are not alone.  There are more of us than there are of them – that’s why they have to make up fake names, yo.  If you need mental health care and have access to it, take care of yourself.  The animal welfare community needs you.  Don’t give up.

Waxing Rhetorical

On my worst days as a blogger, it seems like most commenters don’t bother showing up unless they want to disagree with me on something.  And I wonder why I am not in with the In Crowd, despite my numerous appealing qualities, which my Mom reassures me I possess.

On my best days, I remember that the overwhelming majority of readers never comment and since I am lucky enough to have readers, at least according to WordPress stats, I feel grateful.  There are plenty of places to find reading material on the web and the fact that anyone drops by this little cranny regularly is both humbling and happying.  Welcome to My Pretty Secluded Location.  There are clean towels.

In between the worst and best days are all the other days.  And on those days I think about plants and birds and rocks and things but also that I believe.  I really do.  I believe that the killing of shelter pets could end today, as untidy and challenging as it may prove in the short term, and that it could be maintained long term.  I believe that shelter dogs and cats have a right to live, regardless of whether they are being carried in their mother’s womb or have lived on the streets for 10 years.  I believe that no kill is possible and have resolved to live in accordance with its most basic tenet – that the life of every pet (and I use that as a general description meant to include feral cats and dogs) must be granted individual consideration and respect.  Sometimes it’s inconvenient and requires I make personal sacrifices.  I make them.  Because even if I didn’t want to, there are no reasonable alternatives.

So if there are days when you feel isolated, alienated, or helpless, or perhaps just find yourself wondering whether anyone in the no kill movement would actually stand by you and the homeless pets in your community if push came to shove, know that I will and I am.  This blog is a testament to that promise.  If you are fighting for the right of every dog and cat to live, go ahead and put me down as your +1.  And thank you for reading, which I should say more often.

master bedroom by andrew wyeth

“Look for the helpers.”

Keeping a good thought for all the victims, first responders and their loved ones at the Boston Marathon today.

bomb sniffing beagle

In Memoriam

Tonight, as President Obama represents the nation in mourning the tragedy in Newtown, CT, I am sharing a couple photos of the brave women who gave their lives to protect the children in their care.  Our public school teachers are national treasures and the 6 women who died on Friday in Newtown also happen to be heroes.

Rachel Davino in a screengrab from the Hartford Courant website.

Rachel Davino in a screengrab from the Hartford Courant website.

Victoria Soto in a screengrab from the Hartford Courant website

Victoria Soto in a screengrab from the Hartford Courant website.

Mental Health Break: Quote

“It’s not who you are that holds you back, it’s who you think you are not.”

- Attributed to multiple authors on the internet, most commonly “Unknown”

Alleged Arizona Shooter was Shelter Volunteer

In the inevitable attempt to understand what sort of person commits mass murder, the media is digging into alleged Tuscon shooter Jared Loughner’s past.  He apparently liked dogs and some neighbors remembered he used to walk his own dog around the neighborhood.  One year ago, Mr. Loughner volunteered to walk dogs at the Pima Animal Care Center in AZ.  Shelter staff became concerned when he was allowing dogs to play in an area designated off-limits due to a recent parvo virus infection:

“He didn’t think the disease was that threatening and when we tried to explain how dangerous some of the diseases are. He didn’t get it,” [manager Kim] Janes said.

He wouldn’t agree to keep dogs from the restricted area, and was asked to come back when he would. He never returned.

I don’t know if that tidbit provides us any insight into Mr. Loughner’s mindset.  Or if anything ultimately would.  But I find it interesting that he apparently failed to comprehend that he was putting dogs’ lives at risk by his actions at the shelter.  And that rather than change what he was doing, he opted to abandon any commitment to the dogs at the shelter.

Someone Saved My Life Tonight

If you are part of a movement to change the status quo, you will hit the skids from time to time.  It’s natural.  It’s part of creating change.  You might feel alone, overwhelmed, and/or ineffective.  I wanted to create this post as a reminder that you are not alone.  We’re in this together.  And change is gonna come.

If you’d like to share a story (or two), please post in the comments.  Tell about a pet you rescued or fostered or sponsored.  Talk about your volunteer work at your local shelter.  Post a link to a website or blog or some other media you’ve had a hand in creating to help save pets.  And give us your location so we can be reminded that helping pets is not a geographically isolated concept.

I’d like this post to be a place people can visit anytime they need a little extra Keep Going in their coffee.  So share whatever it is you are doing – especially small things – as you keep going.

The drops of rain make a hole in the stone not by violence but by oft falling. ~Lucretius

Is This America?

I talk a lot on this blog about holding public shelters accountable.  Like most of our taxpayer funded services, shelter workers would be my heroes if they just did their jobs.  Anything above and beyond the call of duty – I’d worship them as gods!  Firefighters are another taxpayer funded group who get to be heroes simply by doing their jobs.  I truly do appreciate all of the public services we often take for granted in this country – clean drinking water, education, roads, etc.

Unfortunately for the people of Obion Co, TN, they do not have a taxpayer funded fire department.  Perhaps some people there – the types who are always complaining about paying taxes – think that’s a good thing since it’s one less tax.  The fire department for the city of South Fulton offers service to rural residents in Obion Co for an annual fee of $75.

Gene Cranick’s family lives in Obion Co.  When his grandson was burning trash last week, the fire got out of control.  Mr. Cranick called 911 but was informed he had forgotten to pay his annual $75 fee and as such, wasn’t on “the list”.  Mr. Cranick offered to pay any amount of money required to get the firefighters to come to his home.  Nope.

Eventually the fire spread to his neighbor’s property.  His neighbor had sent in the $75 fee so the South Fulton fire department came and doused the flames that had leapt into the neighbor’s yard.  When they were finished, they stood around, watching the Cranick family home burn to the ground and presumably hearing the 4 pets inside being burned alive.

“They could have been saved if they had put water on it, but they didn’t do it,” Cranick told MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann.

The city of South Fulton stands by the actions of the firefighters:

South Fulton’s mayor said that the fire department can’t let homeowners pay the fee on the spot, because the only people who would pay would be those whose homes are on fire.

Fair point.  Except we’re not talking about something less than a family’s home, all their worldly possessions, and 4 beloved – living, breathing – pets. How could this have happened?

Last month, I did some grocery shopping, packed up my car with the bags and found it wouldn’t start.  I was stranded.  Although I would have liked to have renewed my old AAA membership when it expired several years ago, it just hasn’t worked out financially.  I called them that day and asked if I could renew.  They said sure and asked if I needed service that day.  If so, there would be an extra $40 fee in addition to the membership renewal fee.  That seems fair.  Couldn’t the South Fulton fire department offer something like that?  I mean, we’re talking about a family home with pets inside burning to the ground.  Hullo!  Where is the love?  Is this how Americans treat each other now?

Let’s be clear:  Firefighters were on the scene of the Cranick family home with means to put out the fire and prevent the 4 pets inside from burning to death.  They did nothing.  Over an unpaid $75 fee.

Afterwards, Mr. Cranick’s son was arrested for assaulting the fire chief at the firehouse.

Out of the Mouths of Babes

We were hanging around the lobby of our local pound last weekend trying to get a neuter voucher for Scout (we weren’t successful).  A family was there adopting a puppy.  I was sitting in front of a corkboard in the lobby where people had put up lost pet notices.  The little girl from the puppy adopting family – I would guess she was about 6 – came over and was looking at the notices.  She pointed to one with a big white dog on it and asked me, “What does he like to eat?”  I told her I didn’t know, the notice didn’t say.  She replied, “If we knew what he liked to eat, we could go to the last place he was and leave a trail of his favorite food from there to the animal shelter and he’d probably follow it and walk right in the front door!”

I told her that was an excellent idea.  I held back my fears for any dog who did walk in the front door of our local pound.

She was too young to realize that not all shelters are safe havens for lost pets.  It wasn’t my place to tell her.  And besides, I am hopeful that by the time she grows up, all shelters will be exactly what she, and many others, believe they should be:  a refuge for the lost, the homeless, the victims of neglect and cruelty; a place for the sick to receive treatment and for the weary to rest in comfort; a peaceful stop at the end of life’s journey to relieve suffering for medically hopeless pets; and a house of joy where owners are reunited with lost pets and adopters find new family members.

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