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Taming dogs with a mean streak

Steve Markwell is a brave man. At his Washington sanctuary, he takes in the worst of the worst that have been turned away by all other shelters - pit bulls, guard dogs, face-biters and cat-killers.

December 11, 2009|By Kim Murphy
  • Steve Markwell, founder of Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks, Wash., plays with Abby who he found at a California truck stop, where animal control officers had spent two weeks unsuccessfully trying to catch her. Markwell made her one of his first rescues.
Steve Markwell, founder of Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks, Wash., plays… (Kim Murphy / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Forks, Wash. — There have always been good dogs and bad dogs. The good dogs come when you call, romp happily with the children and stay off the sofa. The bad dogs chase after cars, trample the flower beds and pass wind under the coffee table.

Then there are the really bad dogs -- the cat-killers, face-biters and snarling, drooling wretches so mean even their owners want them shot. Those are Steve Markwell's kind of dogs.

Dog sanctuary: In Friday's Section A, a photo accompanying an article on a sanctuary for mean dogs in Washington state was credited to Kim Murphy of the Los Angeles Times. The photo was provided by the Olympic Animal Sanctuary. —

"When people create these monsters, I think it's people's responsibility to take care of them. Not to just kill everything because it's inconvenient," said Markwell, who operates a sanctuary for canine ne'er-do-wells in the Olympic Peninsula rain forest.

"The fact that they have their quirks, the extra things you have to be cautious of, in some ways it's almost endearing. It's kind of like, the world hates you, but I don't," he said.

The Olympic Animal Sanctuary caters to the worst of the worst from around the country: dogs who would be euthanized or turned away at any other shelter, and those with records so bad that no animal welfare group would consider adopting them out.

Among the more than 50 animals currently at the sanctuary are domestic coyote mixes, guard dogs who once belonged to drug dealers, cat-killing huskies and one creature who appears to be 90% wolf and about as interested in being petted as a demon is in being in church on Sunday.

And their rap sheets are impressive.

One of Markwell's first clients was a pregnant ex-fighting pit bull named Abby who terrorized the California town of Grapevine, in Kern County, for two weeks -- despite having been shot -- before Markwell was able to coax her into his truck.

After her puppies were born, they were so mean that they largely had to be isolated. "If I let him out right now," Markwell said, pointing to one of the young toughs who was leaping and snarling behind a glass door, "he'd try to kill you. No doubt about it."

Markwell has seen litters of puppies that started trying to kill each other at 7 weeks, and a miniature pinscher who bit off somebody's lip and ate the family guinea pig.

Another of Markwell's dogs now behaves just fine except for "the first two seconds" after he wakes up, when he's almost always in a bad mood. "He was sleeping next to his dog walker, and he woke up and bit off half her face," Markwell said. "But it's easily manageable: Don't sleep with him. If I'm sitting with him and he starts to go to sleep, I'm gonna wake him up and make him leave."

The sanctuary's most famous inmate is Snaps, a mixed breed who made headlines south of Seattle in June when he attacked two women on the command of his owner, a 15-year-old girl.

A 63-year-old woman who had seen the girl and three other youths kicking the dog stopped her car. The girl grabbed the woman by the hair and began beating her with her cellphone. One of the girl's companions moved in with Snaps, kicking the dog until he began attacking the woman. Another woman tried to intervene, and Snaps bit her so badly the skin was flayed off her arms.

The youths -- ages 11, 12, 13 and 15 -- were arrested, with the dog's owner sentenced to 14 months in juvenile detention, and Snaps was facing a probable death sentence until Markwell stepped in.

"This vicious monster of a dog, he's the sweetest thing in the world," said Markwell, who often exchanges face kisses with Snaps, one of the few dogs allowed to roam uncaged inside the large industrial building, ringed with kennels, that is the heart of the sanctuary.

Markwell, 34, never intended to become one of the country's chief go-to guys for unmanageable dogs. But he's always had a thing for animals. When he was 4, he rescued a rabbit from his uncle's fur farm. As a student at St. Margaret's Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, he took in unwanted reptiles.

"I didn't really understand animal welfare as a movement. It was a way to get free snakes," he said. "I had a setup in the closet that my mom didn't know about. She was terrified of snakes. And I had all these boa constrictors. And these big, carnivorous frogs that ate mice. And big lizards. It was something that I totally don't condone now."

He worked for a while after college on a horse ranch and gravitated toward wildlife rescue -- moving to Washington state in 2003 with the idea of helping dogs who couldn't be helped.

He started out by taking in two or three animals he simply ran into; others followed, and when his house got too small, he sold it and bought the industrial site that his brood already has outgrown.

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