Forks City Hall petitioned to close Olympic Animal Sanctuary; officials say it's not that simple
Steve Markwell is shown with one of his shelter dogs during a presentation to the Port Angeles Regional Chamber of Commerce in 2012. -- Peninsula Daily News photo
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Last week, Forks city officials received a petition signed by more than 1,000 people asking for action on the facility.
The petition, which also was sent to the North Olympic Peninsula's three state legislators — Sen. Jim Hargrove, Rep. Kevin Van De Wege and Rep. Steve Tharinger — in addition to Clallam County Sheriff Bill Benedict and a number of other elected officials and representatives of law enforcement, asked for an investigation into the facility for abused and violence-prone dogs.
The petition's authors say “legal action against this 'sanctuary' stalled on the local level for months” and add:
“OAS needs to be investigated by those who have the power to start a 'real' investigation.”
They say that “pictures of emaciated, sickly animals living in filthy conditions have surfaced and nothing is being done.
The facility did a major cleanup for the news to come, and it is felt that the poor conditions will resurface once the press leaves.
“In our opinion, the OAS needs to be shut down, and the owner and board members charged with animal cruelty.”
But Forks officials are unconvinced.
Mayor Bryon Monohon called the petition “a farce.”
He told Forks Forum interim editor Mark Couhig that OAS owner Steve Markwell has been “a great citizen and an all-around good guy.”
He added that many of the critics of the OAS don't understand the animals kept at the facility.
“There are people who think he has house pets, but they aren't. These are dogs that anywhere else would have been put down.
“These are mean, wild animals.”
Monohon said it was also important to remember that Markwell has rights.
He said the city is very hesitant to step in, adding that it could result in litigation.
“I'm not interested in getting the people of Forks in a position where they're spending thousands on this,” he said.
Monohon said in the long run, Markwell likely has just two options: “He gets a nicer, bigger facility, or these dogs have to be put down.”
Markwell, whose shelter has 128 dogs that “aren't realistically adoptable because of their behavior,” told the Peninsula Daily News that the petition was “fraudulent.”
“The petition has no signatures from Forks. It has only five from our county, only 105 from our state,” he said in a telephone interview with the PDN on Saturday, adding that he and others have been tracking signatures on the petition on Facebook.
“Forty-two percent were foreign. The majority of the people thought they were signing a petition about a puppy mill,” Markwell said.
“They didn't know what they were signing,” he said, adding that he gleaned that impression from seeing how the petition was shared via Facebook.
He also said he is certain there are people who have signed multiple times under different names.
Markwell hopes eventually to move the shelter from Forks to unincorporated Clallam County.
But so far, he lacks the $100,000 he would need to move onto the 10-acre property where he has been offered a lease-option.
“We're meeting all of our current needs, but we don't have any extra,” he said.
Markwell, who said he has been threatened on Facebook, feels the petition is “a personal vendetta and has nothing to do with the animals and their well-being.”
In an interview in April, he said the move he wants to make was not related to animal cruelty allegations that were investigated late last year by the Forks Police Department and found to be without merit.
Rather, it will allow more room for dogs under Markwell's care and give closer proximity to a base of workers and the amenities of a larger city, Markwell said.
Markwell said the shelter's new 10-acre location will be 15 to 20 miles west of Port Angeles on 10 acres.
The facility will replace the existing 4,000-square-foot facility on less than 1 acre within the Forks city limit at 1021 Russell Road.
During its time in Forks the past six years, the OAS has been the topic of articles in national publications, including People magazine and the Los Angeles Times.
Conditions at the sanctuary were investigated last fall in a six-week animal-cruelty investigation by the Forks Police Department that showed no evidence of cruelty, Forks Police Administrator Rick Bart said.
The Police Department's investigation revealed overcrowding and one potentially malnourished animal — a possible misdemeanor — among the 155 dogs housed there at the time, Bart said.
Monohon said the city has heard complaints from local residents, “but not a lot.”
He added that he receives numerous emails from animal-rights advocates asking for action.
But, he said, it isn't that easy.
“It's a very, very difficult situation. How does it get resolved? If we try to resolve it, we'll get sued,” Monohon said.
City Attorney/Planner Rod Fleck said he also receives frequent emails and occasionally is required to endure long and sometimes testy phone calls.
He said sometimes, the callers complain about the supposed conditions and include “all these implications that there are all these other violations.”
He shrugged and said: “What can we do? We're not the IRS. We're not the secretary of state.”
He said the city can only take action if there is a criminal act or a code violation.
He said it's a difficult position because Markwell says all of the dogs are his “on a personal level. We don't have a limit on the number of pets you can have,” Fleck said.
He added that the city isn't quick to enter into disputes with private individuals.
“We have a very 'the government can't tell me what we can do with my house and hounds' approach,” Fleck said.
Fleck added that Markwell is now represented by an attorney, which makes informal discussions more difficult. “I can't just talk to him at [local business Forks] Outfitters,” Fleck said.
Fleck said in the past two weeks, he's been attempting to discuss the issue with Markwell's attorney, Paul Richmond, but said the two haven't managed to get together.
“Part of that is my fault,” Fleck said, noting he has a busy schedule.
He added that he's “losing my patience with the whole thing.”
He said he's regularly told to “kick down the doors and rescue the dogs.
“OK, well, someone has a set of rights to the property.”
Fleck said the evidence presented by critics on the Internet has no value.
“There may be some questions about the report and the pictures on the Facebook,” said Fleck.
“I can't get a search warrant on pictures that are 3 years old.”
He said he recently had a long conversation with one critic, who eventually commented: “Well, this is a really complicated issue. There's no easy solution.”
Fleck agreed, saying: “Well, I have a Phi Beta Kappa key and a J.D. If there was an easy solution, I think I would have found it.”
Markwell's attorney, Paul Richmond, declined to comment when contacted by the Forks Forum.
Forks Forum is a weekly newspaper serving west Clallam County.
Last modified: June 30. 2013 10:26AM