By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News
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Steve Markwell made a self-described “desperate” run early Saturday in a tractor and a 53-foot trailer loaded with dogs from the pink warehouse in which they were housed at 1021 Russell Road in Forks.
“I'm desperate for help,” Markwell told the Peninsula Daily News in a cellphone interview Saturday afternoon.
“I really just want the dogs, and myself, to have a life.”
Photos depicting dogs living in travel crates purported to have been taken inside by former volunteers and Forks police have been at the center of a Facebook campaign to shut it down for more than a year, and protesters have been outside picketing the facility for about three weeks.
He built crates in the trailer and loaded the dogs, fed them and gave them water before leaving, he said.
Markwell did not disclose his destination.
Robert Misseri, president of Smithtown, N.Y.-based Guardians of Rescue, said Markwell contacted him shortly after leaving Forks about finding a place to take the dogs.
Misseri said Saturday he was talking with two shelters; one in Arizona and one in California.
“The game has totally changed,” Misseri said. “He is in that vehicle with no destination as of yet, simply because he feels his life was threatened.”
The goal was to find a place where Markwell could take the truck, park it and unload the dogs so representatives from animal rescue agencies across the country could come take the dogs to new homes.
“[Markwell] has to realize that these animals are going to go to people he might not approve of, but he's past the point of being able to choose,” Misseri said.
“Now our goal is to do everything possible to ensure these dogs don't get put down.”
The fact Markwell fled right before Christmas makes the task of lining up new homes for the dogs more difficult, Misseri said.
Since 2008, Markwell has been taking in “bad dogs” from across the nation, canines that have been deemed dangerous and would otherwise be euthanized.
The animals reprieved to his care were housed in the 4,000-square-foot warehouse.
Since Dec. 2, Markwell's dog sanctuary has been under protest by animal activists from around the nation who accuse him of mistreating the dogs.
“I've had so many threats. I just need to get [the dogs] somewhere they will be safe, and I can't risk somebody getting in the way of that,” Markwell said.
Law enforcement authorities said they are not looking for Markwell, saying he has not broken any laws.
Trooper Russ Winger, a spokesman for the State Patrol, said he was familiar with Markwell and the Olympic Animal Sanctuary, but that the State Patrol had no cause to stop him.
“It's not illegal to transport animals,” Winger said. “As far as I know, the Forks police are not looking for him.”
Forks Police Sgt. Mike Rowley received reports Saturday morning that the dogs appeared to be gone from the warehouse.
Rowley went to investigate reports and said there was no noise after he banged on the door.
“There was absolutely no sound at all,” he said.
Rowley said officers do not have cause to enter the building.
“There's no crime if he basically decided to move his business somewhere else,” Rowley said.
Forks Police Administrator Rick Bart said Dec. 11 that police could enter only if they determined Markwell had abandoned the building.
Rowley said Saturday that police did not have enough to suggest that he had abandoned the warehouse.
Markwell said he had reported to Forks authorities for more than a year that he had received threats.
Bart said he has received death threats on his personal cellphone.
Markwell said he received more threats after he announced Dec. 14 that he would close his sanctuary and work with Best Friends Animal Society of Kanab, Utah, to find the dogs new homes.
“Since they only intensified, I began to feel like it was escalating,” he said.
“I'm tired of my friends and family being attacked because of their association with me.”
Best Friends said Thursday it would take or find homes for the dogs from Olympic Animal Shelter if Markwell “agrees to accept help from all willing and qualified rescues, and if he agrees not to take in any more dogs at his existing facility or any other.”
Barbara Williamson, Best Friends' spokeswoman, said Saturday her organization had not been contacted by Markwell.
“We have seen the news reports that Mr. Markwell packed up the Olympic Animal Sanctuary dogs and left his facility on Saturday morning,” Williamson wrote in an email.
“We have no information on Mr. Markwell's intended destination.
“We remain concerned about the dogs in his care.”
Protesters have been picketing Olympic Animal Sanctuary for about three weeks, and a major demonstration called “Save the Voiceless” was planned from 12:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. today.
According to the Facebook page for the protest, 132 people had said they were planning to attend.
Critics say dogs at Olympic Animal Shelter lack proper care. Markwell has repeatedly denied that the dogs have been mistreated in any way.
In the past month, police arrested a protester from Virginia for violating a court order outside OAS, then arrested Markwell and charged him with a misdemeanor for vandalizing a protester's vehicle.
One of Markwell's major donors is suing him, alleging that he has failed to use her $50,000 donation to move the dogs out of the warehouse as she says he promised.
Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at email@example.com.