(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:
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.
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.