Markwell describes his six-year-old Olympic Animal Sanctuary as a “group home for kids with special needs”

By Johnny Dodd
Updated March 29, 2010 10:00 AM
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Steve Markwell offers up a few helpful tips for the visitor who just entered his sanctuary for dogs with – as he puts it – behavioral issues.

“Don’t make eye contact with anyone,” he advises. “And definitely don’t get between them and their food.”

His advice is well heeded. After all, if dogs had rap sheets, most of the 80 canines living at his six-year-old Olympic Animal Sanctuary would need a warehouse to contain a record of all their transgressions. Many have mauled humans. The rest have killed their share of cats, other dogs, even livestock. By the time they find their way to Markwell – who shuns words like vicious, aggressive or mean – most are on doggy death row, awaiting euthanasia.

“What I’m providing is more like a group home for kids with special needs, than a dog jail,” he says. “I’m here to help these animals. Not punish them.”

Most of Markwell’s four-legged wards come from horribly abusive homes. Some were trained to fight and kill. Others were starved and locked away in tiny quarters, never interacting with another living thing. One of his most recent arrivals passes out at the sight of food. Another has to drink from a water bowl encased in 60-lbs. of concrete to prevent him from chewing through the steel container.

In an effort to manage their often violent outbursts, Markwell will spend weeks patiently working to improve their social skills. When they’re not living in pens, they romp around on his one-acre property, even going for drives with him in his truck. If nothing else, his goal is to find them one other dog they can bond with.

Bark and All Bite
“I don’t use punishment or intimidation,” says Markwell, who “wholly” rejects celebrity trainer Cesar Millan’s pack leader/dominance approach.

Markwell’s beefy body is pocked-marked with scars from hundreds of dog bites. Some of the wounds shattered his bones. The experiences, though painful, have convinced him that there’s nothing more natural for a dog to do – once or twice in its lifetime – than sink their teeth into another animal or even a human.

“The difference between a ‘dangerous’ dog and any other dog,” he says, “is that the ‘dangerous’ dog got caught.”

And when they do get caught, Markwell is the guy whose phone rings. Because there’s nobody else who takes such hard-luck cases, he’s become the go-to guy for desperate rescue groups, district attorneys and animal control workers hoping to avoid euthanizing a dog. About half his animals come from towns and cities near his home in Forks, Wash., but he’s been known to drive across country to fetch a dog.

Once they arrive at his sanctuary, however, they never leave. “What I’m creating is a new approach – one based on the wildlife sanctuary model,” says Markwell, who not only makes all the sanctuary’s food, but also sleeps in a quasi kennel with some of his most troubled animals. “Why does every dog have to be adoptable?”

Elizabeth Lujambio, founder of Los Angeles’s Marley’s Pit Stop Rescue was pondering that same question last month when she turned to Markwell as a last resort. One of her rescues, a four-year-old Doberman named Telsa, had bitten four people. “She was sleeping with him two days after he got her,” she says. “If it wasn’t for Steve, she would have been killed.”

Asking for Trouble?
Of course, not everyone thinks that’s a good thing. “What he’s doing is completely misguided,” says Colleen Lynn who started the victims’ rights group dogbite.org after a pit bull attack left her with several severely crushed bones. “We just hope he doesn’t get his arm chewed off.”

That’s the least of Markwell’s worries – although he definitely knows it could happen. What consumes him is how can he best help those dogs that society has written off as dangerous, while also changing how all of us look at them.

“I’m searching for that dog I can’t fix,” he says. “But I haven’t found him yet.”

Read more about Markwell’s sanctuary in the new issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now.