About 18 months ago, a volunteer at a Forks, Wash., animal sanctuary took photos of the shelter where she worked. She captured grim images of a rundown warehouse where the animals – mostly dogs but also reptiles – were housed, focusing on their cages, rib cages, feces and exposed wiring.
The volunteer, who has since left Olympic Animal Sanctuary, turned those images over to a national animal rights organization, according to Forks police. It wasn’t until three months later that the photos were forwarded to police.
The police checked out the shelter, took photos and found that one dog appeared malnourished. Officers asked the court to charge Stephen Markwell, the director of the sanctuary, with a misdemeanor, but the court declined.
“And that’s where this all started,” said Rick Bart, Forks chief of police.
In the year or so since, protesters have descended on Forks, a small city of 3,500 on the rural Olympic Peninsula known for the "Twilight" vampire fantasy series. They demanded that the sanctuary be shut down and became frustrated with city officials and police, saying the city was protecting one of their own by allowing the shelter to stay open.
“My sense is that a few national organizations have created this on social media, and it’s gotten out of hand,” Bart said. “We’ve received so many harassing phone calls and emails, and threatening phone calls and emails. Some of the people wear masks and shout, ‘WTO.’ They’re not winning the hearts and minds of the people in the town.”
Meantime, Markwell secured a lawyer and won’t allow police back into the warehouse without a search warrant.
City officials say they’re stuck: There are no city rules preventing residents from having so many dogs in one place.
Residents of Forks are also frustrated. Protesters have entered restaurants in masks, according to Bart, tearing down posters supporting Markwell.
For the most part, though, protesters have rallied outside the warehouse where the dogs are kept – some say up to 160 dogs in a confined space – holding signs and posting updates on Facebook. Their campaign has more than 10,000 “likes” on Facebook under the name OAS - life inside the sanctuary.
“The City Admin of Forks WA continue to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the mournful, desperate cries of these dogs, crammed into small crates and cages, 24 hours a day, for days, weeks, months and YEARS at a time,” the group opposing the sanctuary stated on a petition page.
They have called for a boycott of businesses in Forks and the surrounding areas.
Maggie McDowell, one of the organizers, said she started hearing about Olympic Animal Sanctuary two and a half years ago. McDowell has founded two pitbull rescues in Seattle and heard at the time that Markwell was overwhelmed by the number of dogs he had taken in.
Work parties formed to help him; McDowell said that those who went to clean the warehouse had to wear respirators because of the strong smell.
“It is simply an unheated warehouse,” McDowell said. “It’s not a shelter facility, there's no human restroom inside. It's simply a metal building with dogs inside.”
As McDowell became more familiar with the sanctuary, she complained to a Forks City Council member that Markwell had taken in a litter of puppies. The council member told her that Markwell “just can’t say no.”
“I do have a tendency to classify it as hoarding because he can’t stop taking dogs,” McDowell said.
Bart said the police are caught in the middle as the conflict reaches a fever pitch. In the last month, police arrested a protester from Virginia for violating a court order. On Tuesday, police arrested Markwell and charged him with a misdemeanor for vandalizing a protester’s car.
Bart said Markwell repeats that he loves his dogs.
“I think he truly believes that,” Bart said. “He doesn’t think he has too many there. I think he’s wrong, but there’s nothing there in the city codes that says he can have X amount of dogs on his property.”
A call to Olympic Animal Sanctuary was not returned on Wednesday. In a statement posted to Facebook, Markwell defended himself. He said the volunteer had staged some of the photos.
“We have a facility that cares for animals that literally no one else will take,” he wrote. “The animals at OAS generally have no other option besides being put to death. Many pose serious challenges in their care, which can make even the most basic tasks difficult or dangerous.”
In closing, Markwell asks for support.
“Things are not perfect – we certainly could use more resources – but I take good care of animals with no other options,” he said. Records show that Markwell received $151,220 in contributions in 2011 – about $945 per dog, if protesters are correct about the number of dogs at the warehouse.
“I do the best I can on a shoe-string budget,” Markwell said. “What I need, more than anything, is money.”
This story was originally published at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 18.