Critics trying to rescue dogs from 'sanctuary of sorrow'

FORKS, Wash. -- It's a noble cause: Give sanctuary to dangerous dogs whose only other option is being euthanized.

But critics say the man who runs the Olympic Animal Sanctuary has failed that mission and the many dogs in his care should be removed.

Not everyone knows what's going on inside the "sanctuary of sorrow," a rundown warehouse in the rural town of Forks, Washington.

You can hear the dogs. The Forks City Attorney says he was told there are 120 to 140 dogs. You can smell them, too.

But Steve Markwell, the man who runs the Olympic Animal Sanctuary for dangerous dogs, won't let just anyone inside.

So photos, shot last year by volunteers, give a glimpse: Skinny dogs kept mostly in plastic travel crates and small cages, although a few dogs are in rather large indoor kennels.

There is dog waste, heavy accumulations of dust and dirt everywhere, and the facility is strewn with junk and equipment. Crates with dogs inside are sometimes stacked on top of each other. And the smell, which has been described by several who have been inside as overwhelming, was enough to make at least one volunteer vomit.

"A hell hole for these animals," said one former volunteer who asked that his name not be used. "An absolute nightmare."

"It was just so shocking," said Sue Walshe, a former supporter who now regrets helping send several dogs there. "It's a torture chamber."

Three former volunteers and supporters, now going public, say they represent scores of others demanding action.

"I don't think he realizes what he's doing," said the former volunteer who asked that his name not be used.

He was asked whether the authorities should shut him down.

"One hundred thousand percent yes," he said

"It was just so shocking," said Walshe, "I don't think I've ever experienced like that in my life."

"It's an ugly, dirty little secret that has come out," said former volunteer Pati Wynn, "and people have to be a voice for these dogs. Something has to be done, to help these dogs."

Former volunteers talk of Buddy, rescued from a California desert, then trained and adopted -- until Buddy bit a neighbor. They raised $3,000 so the sanctuary could build him his own run.

Buddy was last seen underweight and living in a tiny cage.

Crockett, found near San Clemente, was too growly to adopt. So money was raised to give him life in the sanctuary. His rescuers say Crockett, who was videotaped circling repetitively in his cage inside Markwell's sanctuary

His rescuers now say Crocket, who was videotaped circling repetitively in his cage inside Markwell's sanctuary, looks like he's going crazy.

Barry the saint bernard was deemed unadoptable. Later at the sanctuary, Wynn found him dead next to a dry water bowl and took a photo to document it. She says she got a text from Markwell saying he'd bury the dog later.

Just three stories with so many more wrapped in secrecy.

KOMO 4 News went to Forks to see what's inside the pink warehouse where the Olympic Animal Sanctuary is headquartered, but Markwell would not let us in and would not agree to an on-the-record interview.

While KOMO 4 News was outside the warehouse, Markwell was courteous and chatted briefly. While our camera was there, he walked several dogs, but former volunteers say this was not the norm. The former volunteer who requested his name not be used said, "I said to (Markwell) that I'd like to get them on a walking schedule and exercise them. And he said that they don't have time to do that at all"

Forks police investigated an animal cruelty complaint last year. Police photos taken in November and released to former volunteers mirror the concerns of others.

"All were crouched, very minimal space," an officer said.

The officer described "an overwhelming odor of urine so strong that my eyes began to tear up and I began to cough." Some water bowls were clean, others had "green slimy residue."

"The majority of crated dogs didn't have access to water," the officer said.

Markwell told the officer the dogs eat every other day, and fed only unrefrigerated raw animal parts delivered frozen but not kept in a freezer and refrigerator because it broke down some time ago.

The report said Markwell was "very concerned" conditions would be "publicized or documented." Other noise and smell complaints were filed. An animal cruelty citation was written, but "unissued."

So the investigation concluded no violations of law.

"We could - and many of the activists, I'm sure, would like to see us amass the Army together and go in there and just take all the dogs," said Forks Mayor Bryon Monohon. "But that opens up a whole variety of other kettles of fish."

The mayor was asked whether that includes lawsuits.

"Including lawsuits," he said.

Monohon says Forks does not have money to fight a legal battle, and they lack local ordinances with teeth. He told a newspaper that an online petition, now with more than 7,000 signators, is a "fraud."

Markwell has been a good citizen, he said, even leading a re-write of proposed animal ordinances. Markwell has plenty of friends in forks.

"They are the love of his life!" said hardware store owner bob stark. "They are his mission in life - is to keep these dogs alive."

Markwell's supporters say photos don't always show the whole story and that dogs don't care if things are messy. More money would help -- at least they're still alive.

Markwell and his lawyer have attacked his critics, city leaders, the police report and the officer -- even KOMO 4 News -- believing critics "are engaged in a vicious campaign of defamation."

So when a New York shelter paid to go bring three dogs back from the sanctuary in June, shelter workers were ordered to sign a secrecy contract to avoid lawsuits. Several say they refused and were fired. A dog expert that'd been contracted by the shelter briefly examined the dogs. His report says the three were in such bad shape, two were euthanized. He says he filed a complaint with the city of forks.

Mayor Monohon was asked "is there not enough reason to get a warrant to go in and look?"

"There is not at this time," he said.

Outside the warehouse, KOMO 4 News asked Markwell directly, "When you look over at that facility, is that really the vision that you had in mind when you started?"

"It's a starting point," he said.

Markwell began to walk away.

"Anyway, I don't want to do an interview," he said.

KOMO 4 News contacted top animal welfare leaders locally and nationwide. All of them, including the Humane Society of the United States, agree there are big problems with the Olympic Animal Sanctuary and several are trying to help. It's unclear whether Markwell will accept that help.

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