Guard Dog Blog

on Livestock Guardian Dogs and small farm life…

Happy Endings

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Hold on to your hats, I’m posting again.  I know, posting twice in 24 hours isn’t my usual MO – hey, posting twice in 24 days isn’t.  I’m a slow brewer.

Something’s been going on that’s been bothering me.  I’ve been watching from the fringes, but friends of mine have been involved with quite closely.  They are part of a crew of brave and persistent people who worked tirelessly to advocate for a large group of dogs living in substandard conditions.  I wrote about these dogs at the Olympic Animal Sanctuary (OAS) previously in the spring of 2013.  At that point, it looked like things were heating up and the OAS wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer.  Unfortunately, the first part was true but it took until nearly the end of 2013 for it to become too hot in the kitchen for Steve Markwell, the man responsible for OAS.  No one from the government, local or otherwise, stepped in – no one advocated for or cared for these dogs whose job it was to do so.  OAS was, for all of its existence, a political hot potato.

Anyone who questions vocal critics of some areas of rescue and sanctuary watchdogs only have to look to the OAS for their answer.  In case you’re not familiar with the origins of these dogs, every single one of them were slated for destruction at shelters elsewhere, often due to behavioral issues.  Some of the dogs had dangerous dog labels from the communities they originated in, meaning they had proven themselves to be aggressive.  Some communities don’t have  work in the same way, so some of the dogs don’t have official labels but likely should have.  All told, the OAS had 124 dogs when Markwell decided to pack it in – or better said, pack them up and drive off into the sunset.

In operation since 2008, there was a wealth of public information regarding the conditions of the dogs at OAS.  I posted some of the pictures of the conditions at the “sanctuary” in my previous post.  A friend of mine waded through the entire published document consisting of all of the public information gathered about the OAS over the years.  She said what she read and saw in there was so incredibly disturbing, borne up by the volunteer eye witness accounts outlined here.  If you’re like me, diving into something like that would scar you forever, and so I’ll spare you the details.  Suffice it to say that there was more than an ample amount of evidence that Markwell couldn’t care for these dogs in any basic form, never mind meeting the Five Freedoms, which are the corner stone of any reputable organization.  Still nothing was done.  The protesters kept at it, day after day.  They advocated in person, online, through writing emails, calling and gathering evidence.  Their dedication was truly a beautiful and powerful thing to witness.

On Saturday. December 21, 2013, most of us woke up to a startling bit of news.  “On the Run!” headlines screamed.  Steve Markwell had, unbeknownst to most observers, built crates in a 53′ semi truck, loaded all the dogs, and disappeared.  How he managed to do this while under so much scrutiny is still a mystery.  Certainly he didn’t do it all by himself.  He left no word of a destination, and although he had recently tried to tell Best Friends Animal Sanctuary  they were welcome to have the dogs through a release to the media, he had made no real effort to work something out with them.  Most people concluded that he wasn’t serious about moving the dogs, or that it would take some time yet for the plans to come together.  Instead, in the same impulsive fashion he’d brought the dogs in, Markwell took them out.  If he was going for maximum dramatic benefit, he got it.  The world tuned in to the story of the mad man in the semi truck packed with dangerous and neglected dogs and held their collective breath that he would be found before the dogs died.

We may never know what happened during those days before Steve Markwell and the OAS dogs resurfaced.  What we do know is that somewhere along the way, Markwell contacted Guardians of Rescue (GOR) and arranged to surrender the dogs at an undisclosed meeting area.   The meeting happened, the dogs were unloaded, and that’s the end.  Or is it?

One of the biggest issues in modern rescue in my opinion is that little pesky bit about a lack of common sense and a overabundance of what some people like to call the “bleeding heart syndrome”.  Running a close second is the fact that the people doing rescue now aren’t necessarily in it for altruistic reasons.  Whichever one of these issue led Steve Markwell to continually take on dogs he wasn’t equipped to care for and whichever one allowed people to continue to give him dogs (and pay him to for some) despite the wealth of information on OAS, I couldn’t tell you.  But it does make me wonder what the motivations were for GOR to make this move.  One thing I learned well is that rescue is no different than any other movement and consequently, what is reported in the press often bears little resemblance to what happened behind the scenes.  Regardless, considering the lemon Markwell was asking first Best Friends and then GOR to take on, I suppose it’s good in the end that one of them agreed to play his game in order to get the dogs away from his control.  I do strongly believe that Best Friends had the more appropriate approach when they responded to Markwell in kind, in the press.  Here’s a link to their statement.   They clearly were asking for a rational approach, a more systematic way to address the situation so as to provide for the best with the minimum of stress for the dogs.  Unfortunately for the dogs, Best Friends was not dealing with a rational person.

The dogs are out of OAS.  The building is empty and hopefully no other animals will ever go through what they went through there.  We, most of us, let our breath out in a rush,  gleefully anticipating the happy ending for these dogs.   Those of us with a bit more experience started looking a little deeper.  I personally feel that the reason Markwell didn’t negotiate well with Best Friends is that he realized his control over the dogs was limited going that route.  Most hoarders can only see that part, the control they have over their owned ‘objects’ – inanimate or otherwise.  There is nothing so heart wrenching as a person who cannot see the needs of the sentient beings under their control, who are only able to see how any decision made affects themselves and their security.    Steve Markwell decided he’d up the ante, get himself in the spotlight and place these dogs in another untenable situation so that their processing would be less likely to be systematic and more likely to be pressured by time.  When you look at all that Markwell managed to do in a country that professes to be a world leader in animal care and welfare, especially that of our pet companions, you have to wonder who the system truly protects – the animals or the sick people who profess to love them?

I, for one, am not banking on 124 happy endings.  These are dogs who not only showed instability (some very substantially) before they came to OAS, but who now have been subjected to horrific mill conditions for varying lengths of time, a harrowing and stressful transport, are being housed in temporary unfamiliar conditions, processed by people they don’t know and shipped off to other rescues of varying abilities.  As is far too often true in rescue, much of what will happen to the animals depends on the skill, experience and ethics of the people who have control over them at any given time.  Equally true is that there is intense pressure to save all of these dogs despite their past – once a situation is in the media, it gets a disproportionate amount of the support and just as much pressure to make every story a successful one.  Considering the fact that these dogs are more than likely suffering from PTSD as outlined in this great blog post , are we even able to see the true dog in each of them at this point?  Is it likely that all the rescues will ensure appropriate long term care for these dogs as they recover?  Will they prepare and choose the new adoptive homes carefully?  Will they be able to refrain from posting pictures of a dog panting after a run and say – “Look at the smile!  She knows she’s been saved and all will be well now!” .   Considering the way this typically works, I don’t have high hopes for any of that.

So, in the end, what can we do?  Not a lot unless we are directly involved with these dogs, and even then, probably not much.  I know that’s less than helpful, but it is, unfortunately true.  If you’re someone who is caring for a dog from the OAS, you can make a difference for that dog.  If you’re on the ground processing these dogs, you can be a voice of reason when it comes to where the dogs are going and advocate for their pasts not to be erased out of the equation.  You can realize that these are animals who have undergone a great deal that may well never leave them.  You can acknowledge that some dogs will be more resilient than others and that for some, more intervention will be necessary.  You can advocate for a slow and deliberate process with the OAS dogs.

As for the rest of us, we can only hope that this experience will change the way sanctuaries and the extreme no kill movement is viewed.  We can continue to add our voice of reason to the biased conversation online and in the media.  We can refuse to support organizations who are looking out for their best interests above proper and educated care for the animals.  After all, if it weren’t for some of those dedicated and vocal people, the OAS dogs might well still be there.

Let’s try to up the ante ourselves and stop people like Steve Markwell from gaining access to them in the first place.



For the latest on the OAS dogs and pictures of them, head to OAS – life inside the sanctuary, a FB page that has been closely following the situation for some time.  You can also keep an eye out for blogs and articles regarding them, as many people are weighing in.

Author: offleash

Small farmer, student of canine life, advocate, dog rehab and behavior specialist.

One thought on “Happy Endings

  1. Great summing up of a truly epic tale! I keyboard campaigned for these dogs from the UK. For weeks I couldn’t sleep for thinking of those desperate faces peering out of their filthy stacked up crates. The lack of action from officials was so frustrating and the condemnation of our protest was sometimes soul destroying but in the end the dogs won. I said at the end of the struggle the USA needed to seriously look at their ‘no kill’ policy. If reputable ‘no kil’l shelters stick responsibly to their capacities they are not ‘no kill’ they just pass the problem on. A simple count of available spaces in shelter and foster compared to number of dogs in need will see a shortfall. These shortfall dogs will forever end up in similar situations to the OAS dogs being sent to no end of ‘rescues’ unchecked and not followed up. Sad but true. No kill is admirable if the saved dogs go on to live a quality life but the consequences for some are unthinkable.

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