April 05, 2010 12:00 PM

Don’t make eye contact,” warns Steve Markwell as he welcomes a rare visitor. He’s not trying to scare anyone; he’s trying to keep people from being attacked by one of his 80 dogs, who, as he gently puts it, “have issues.” Another tip: “Definitely don’t get between them and their food.”

One hardly needs a warning, as the residents at Markwell’s Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks, Wash., are a tough-looking crew of pit bulls, mixed wolf breeds and other dogs, all with long rap sheets. Many have mauled humans, or killed pets or even livestock. By the time they find their way to Markwell’s muddy 1-acre spread, most are awaiting euthanasia. “What I’m providing is more like a group home than a dog jail,” he says. “I’m here to help these animals, not punish them.”

A former high school teacher and teen counselor, Markwell, 34, opened his sanctuary in 2004 with funding from private donations, fulfilling a longtime goal of working with animals. Now he’s called on by rescue agencies around the country to save those no one else can. “Steve is filling a need that wasn’t being met,” says Elizabeth Lujambio, founder of Marley’s Pit Stop Rescue in L.A., who sent him her worst biter and saw the dog “sleeping next to him in just two days.”

His secret? “The way I carry myself,” he says, “takes away a dog’s reason to fear me.” Most of his wards were abused or trained to kill. To diffuse their anger and fear, he’ll often lie down near them in a submissive posture, or blow into their nostrils, which soothes them. “I don’t use punishment.”

But not everyone applauds his efforts. “What he’s doing is completely misguided,” says Colleen Lynn, who started the victims’ rights group dogsbite.org after being attacked by a pit bull. “We just hope he doesn’t get his arm chewed off.”

Markwell has been bitten a lot-a yellow lab once broke his hand. But often he can turn dog-pound rejects into pussycats. Witness basenji-mix Hazel, former serial biter and cat killer, who today plops happily at Markwell’s feet and rolls over for a belly rub. “I’m searching for that dog I can’t fix,” he says. “But I haven’t found him yet.”


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