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‘I’m not going to let anybody tell me where to live’: Former dog sanctuary owner returns to Forks
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Steve Markwell stands in front of the Forks warehouse in which he once housed 124 dogs as the Olympic Animal Sanctuary. —Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News. [Copyright © 2014, Peninsula Daily News]

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

FORKS –– Living again at the same warehouse where last year he had housed 124 dogs that protesters said lived in inhumane conditions, Steve Markwell said he just wants to be left alone to start a new life.

“I’m not going to let anybody tell me where to live,” he said Friday.

Several weeks ago, he moved back into the pink warehouse at 1021 Russell Road with the dogs he kept as pets after dissolving his Olympic Animal Sanctuary last year.

How many dogs?

“Somewhere between one and 500,” he said.

Markwell wouldn’t say how many dogs he now has, explaining that he didn’t want to fuel the social media campaign that drew protesters to his sanctuary last year.

The dogs he has now are required to be licensed with the city because they are personal pets and not sanctuary animals kept by a nonprofit as before, according to City Attorney Rod Fleck.

“Some are, some aren’t,” Markwell said when asked whether his dogs are now licensed.

“Are anybody’s?”

City officials say Markwell’s refusal to be open is what drove the protests that stormed into the West End city famed for its connection with the Twilight series of novels and movies.

“Olympic Animal Sanctuary was never a transparent organization by any means,” Mayor Bryon Monohon said.

From 2006 until Dec. 21 of last year, Markwell housed dangerous dogs inside the warehouse on Russell Road.

He formed the sanctuary to save the lives of dogs that would otherwise be euthanized because they were either abused or prone to violence, he said.

In the face of protests, some in Forks supported Markwell by organizing drives for dog food and blankets and staging counter-protests, Monohon said.

“I think the community was supportive of him, probably a bit to our detriment,” Monohon said.

Monohon said he had few interactions with Markwell.

“I really didn’t have a reason to hang out with the guy,” Monohon said. “I’m a cat person.”

Protests from across the nation began after a Facebook site showed photos depicting neglected dogs living in travel crates and dirty conditions. The photos were said to have been taken inside the shelter by former volunteers and Forks police.

Many activists demanded the city take action against Markwell.

“It’s not like all of us didn’t want the situation to just go away,” Monohon said.

“But the government just doesn’t have the right to go kicking people’s doors down.”

The city could have done so in response to the complaints, he said, but would have then been open to litigation from Markwell because it had no legal justification.

“We would have lost in court, and he would be sitting back with a bunch of the city’s money,” Monohon said.

“And I don’t know that the dogs would have been better off than they are now.”

On Dec. 24, after weeks of heavy protests — both online and in person in Forks — Markwell turned the dogs over to members of a New York-based dog rescue organization, who met him in Arizona.

“He did the right thing in the end by moving them on,” Monohon said.

Markwell arrived at a makeshift shelter in the Arizona desert with the dogs crated in the back of a 53-foot semitrailer after a flight from Forks that began Dec. 21.

Most of Markwell’s OAS dogs have been adopted by rescue agencies throughout the country.

Robert Misseri with Guardians of Rescue, the New York-based animal rescue organization that led the effort to find new homes for the OAS dogs, said Thursday some 20 dogs remain in the desert shelter.

“It was a monster undertaking. These are not easy dogs to adopt out” because of their aggressive nature and emotional problems, Misseri has said.

For the past year and a half, the city of Forks has been crafting new rules that would require residents who keep large numbers of pets to provide information about them to the city.

“We have no way to say [Markwell] can’t be here,” City Attorney Rod Fleck said.

“But we are working on new rules that could prevent, or at least give us more information, if we had a similar situation again.”

The revision to the city’s animal control ordinance would require those with “collections of animals” to register with the city and provide regular proof that animals have been inspected by a licensed veterinarian.

Fleck said a subcommittee has been formed to finalize the ordinance, now in draft form, and should bring it to the City Council sometime near the end of June.

The city had no such law when the dog sanctuary was in operation, and Fleck said that prevented officials, including police, from gathering information about Markwell’s operation.

“He’s in a different situation now,” said Monohon, one of three people running this year for the Clallam County commissioner seat vacated by longtime Commissioner Mike Doherty, who did not file for re-election.

“Before, we never had any current information. We had the photos, but they were a year old by the time we got them.”

Fleck said the “collection” clause in the revised ordinance would give the city information about how many animals residents have.

Requiring that, he said, would allow emergency responders to prepare for animals inside a building if they are called there for fires or medical calls.

“If we had had an emergency in the sanctuary, what would we have done?” Fleck asked.

But Markwell contends the city still has no authority to search his residence to inspect for dogs.

“If anything, they have less authority because I don’t have any of the dangerous dogs that were registered,” he said.

He stressed that he has no intention of resuming a dog-rescue operation.

“The last thing in the world I would want to do is start up again,” Markwell said.

On Facebook pages, Markwell’s critics have called OAS a “tragic hoarding situation.”

“I never fit the description of a hoarder,” Markwell said. “I would turn dogs away. I tried finding new homes for the dogs once the money started to drop off, but I got turned down by everybody that I approached.”

Markwell began taking in dogs while living at a rental house near Neah Bay.

There with his dog, he took in a pair of stray dogs that kept showing up at his house.

He then went to Los Angeles, where he rescued a pregnant dog from a fighting ring. She delivered a litter of four puppies.

Realizing the difficulty he would have renting a home for himself and eight dogs, he bought a house in Forks but outgrew that and purchased the Russell Road warehouse.

After traveling to Arizona with the dogs, Markwell left the rescue site in January and spent time in Mexico before returning to Forks in February to face a charge of malicious mischief for kicking the car of a protester and to answer a civil suit filed by former donor Sherie Maddox of Port Angeles.

After returning to resolve a bench warrant issued against him for the malicious mischief charge, Markwell left for California.

He returned for preliminary trial motions in Clallam County District Court in Forks.

Realizing the trial would take some time to process, Markwell said, he decided to stay in Forks.

He has been living in Forks for the most part since, he said.

He put the blame on the city for allowing the protests of his sanctuary to escalate as they did last fall and worried officials are again fueling the outcry.

Last week, city police contacted Markwell after receiving a number of calls about dog barks heard outside the warehouse.

Fleck said many of the calls about dogs heard barking from inside the warehouse came from out of the area.

“Why would they respond to a noise complaint call from out of state?” Markwell asked.

“This is just a bunch of people on Facebook saying, ‘hey, everybody, let’s call today.’”

City officials expect calls to continue to come in as long as Markwell lives in Forks.

“There are individuals who are keeping a close eye on him,” Fleck said. “And it’s not the government.”

________

Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: May 17. 2014 5:42PM
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