It’s easy to look away. Images of suffering haunt a mind’s eye, and conditions that inflict pain can seem insurmountable. This was Laura Koerber’s all too human reaction when the suffering of dogs at Washington’s Olympic Animal Sanctuary first landed on her radar. But when she discovered that the deplorable conditions were near her own home county, that animals were suffering unthinkable and preventable cruelty, she knew there was action to take and a story to tell. What she didn’t expect was that despite indisputable photographic evidence of abuse, law enforcement, local government, and other expected modes of cavalry weren’t coming. Rescue from so-called animal rescue was rare. Thus, she found herself embroiled in a dramatic grassroots quest that gained national attention and reminds us that extraordinary evil and phenomenal heroism coexist in the most mundane main streets of Everytown, USA. She tells her remarkable story through one dog’s tale.



On the far side of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, halfway between the mountains and the ocean, is the little town of Forks. In that town, in a quiet neighborhood of modest houses and shabby businesses, is a dilapidated pink warehouse. And inside that warehouse, stacked in crates, once were stored over one hundred dogs. The dogs were kept piled up on shelves, arranged in rows along the walls, and shoved into corners behind heaps of garbage and pee-saturated straw. A few of the dogs were confined to wire-sided or glassed-in kennels. One was kept in an old horse trailer. Some of the dead ones were stored in a cooler.

In one of the crates was a black dog named Daisy. This will be her story. 

It is also the story of the rescue of an estimated one hundred and twenty-four dogs and one snake from the Olympic Animal Sanctuary, the only large-scale dog rescue in the US to be carried out with no support from local government. The OAS rescue was an epic that extended over several years and featured small town politics, protests, assault, lawsuits, arrests and a midnight escape, all played out to a nationwide audience. 

However, I didn't decide to write this book because of the drama. The story of the OAS rescue is important because it encapsulates many of the issues relating to the plague of failed rescues, hoarders, and puppy mills parasitizing small towns across America, issues which include local politics, limited financial resources, lack of knowledge, inadequate laws, and lack of the will to enforce the laws that exist. I also hope to give readers a better understanding of how rescues fail, how to tell a failing rescue from a successful one, and how to choose a rescue to support.

The overarching story arc of the OAS rescue is of dogs placed at the sanctuary, dogs suffering in the sanctuary, and dogs rescued from the sanctuary. Within that one big story there are one hundred and twenty-four smaller story threads, one for each dog, each thread unique, some heartbreaking, many inspiring.  Someday maybe someone will write that story—the story of all of the dogs, but that someone is not me. Instead have I focused on a few dogs, with a particular focus on one, Daisy. And that story is an epic in its own right: a long roundabout journey home.  


Chapter One 

 A picture taken of Daisy in Arizona in 2014 shows a short, stocky, black dog with a hesitant stance, nervously looking back over her shoulder. Daisy's appearance is not remarkable. Any rescue will have dozens that look like her: smooth-coated, a bit chunky, the kind of dog that gets called a pitbull, but is probably mostly black lab.  She's hunkered down, her back curved in submission. Her body language says, "Please don't hurt me." She looks like a child that has been beaten too many times.  

Daisy Photo by Guardians of Rescue

Hers was not the first picture I saw of a dog from the Olympic Animal Sanctuary. The first was of Max, the min pin. I saw him in a shot taken by the police. The picture shows a dog frantically, desperately, crazily struggling to escape confinement in a tiny filthy crate.  The picture became iconic, the symbol of the heartbreaking frustration, anger, and despair of all the dogs.

  Max. Photo by Forks Police

I'm a dog walker for a dog rescue in Washington State.  I live with my husband and our two dogs on an island in the South Sound, work as a care provider for disabled people, and write narrative fiction. I got into dog rescue eight years ago because I needed to find a home for a stray that I was feeding near my place of work. I was fortunate; my introduction to dog rescue came through a state-of-the-art, competently managed kennel-style rescue.

My first knowledge of the problems at the Olympic Animal Sanctuary came from a conversation in the break room at our dog rescue kennel.  On a rainy day in September of 2013, I overheard some volunteers chatting about a recent story on the news: a hoarding situation, dogs in filthy rat-infested darkness out in rural Jefferson County. I listened, and then I made the deliberate decision to not learn anything more about the dogs and their situation.  I thought that there was no hope for dogs out in western Jefferson County, and I didn't want to have images in my head of suffering that would not be alleviated.

Western Jefferson County is a very isolated region.  The county lines on the Olympic Peninsula were drawn parallel, running east to west right across the Peninsula as if there was no mountain range in the middle. As a result, Jefferson County is cut in half. You can't get from the populated side to the unpopulated side without spending hours driving the great circle route out through other counties. A person in West Jefferson could occupy a property up a dirt road in the woods and do whatever they liked for years, unmolested by law enforcement or neighbors.  

Since I didn't see much chance of Washington's weak animal protection laws being enforced out there, I mentally walked away from the dogs at OAS. Then, one evening, the Inside the Olympic Animal Sanctuary Facebook page popped up on my Facebook news feed.  I saw the photo of Max. I saw the other police photos. I went into shock.

OAS: Inside the Olympic Animal Sanctuary was a Facebook page set up by former OAS employee Pati Winn to expose conditions inside the dog rescue, to rally people in support of the dogs, and to get the dogs released to legitimate rescues. An archive of materials was posted on the site which included documentation of the police investigation, failed fundraising drives, and possible misuse of donations.  Also posted were "The Pati Papers," Pati Wynn's harrowing account of the conditions within the sanctuary during her time as a volunteer and employee. And there were pictures. Lots of pictures. Pictures of skinny dogs, injured dogs, dead dogs. Pictures that were all the same: grime, filth, desperation, misery, death. 

Then I noticed the location: Clallam County. The "sanctuary" was in the town of Forks, not out in the woods somewhere, and it was in Clallam County, a county that is spread out, but at least you can drive from one end to the other without having to leave the county altogether. My husband and I have driven through Clallam County many times on the way out to the ocean. We have stopped in Forks several times, though just to buy gas.

Forks is an outpost tied to the rest of the state by the narrow thread of a two-lane blacktop highway. It's the hub of the northwestern corner of the state mainly because there's no real competition out there for hub status. Forks is an old timber town with a current population of about 3,500. "Old timber town" means that Forks once had a thriving economy based on timber harvest, but suffered a downturn when the timber economy collapsed. Now people work at the prisons or for the tourist industry.

To the tourist passing through, Forks looks like it came into being as a manifestation of American culture in the 1950's and stayed that way.  There's a hospital, a library, a small combo city hall and police station, and several city parks. Off the main drag the neighborhoods are pleasant: small neat houses, mowed lawns and flower beds, big deciduous trees. Forks isn't near enough to the mountains have the drama of a mountain setting and it isn't close enough to the sea to have a beach. The town doesn't even have a waterfront on the river fork it is named after.  The only remarkable feature of the town's appearance is the vampire kitsch on display everywhere.

Forks had a brief flirtation with fame after the Twilight book series was made into a string of movies. The movies are set in a romanticized version of Forks, Hollywood's concept of working class American life, all plaid shirts and pick-up trucks and laconic drawling. The people of the real Forks cashed in by splashing vampire kitsch all over their main drag: special vampire rooms in the motel, vampire junk for sale in the shops, even tours.

Forks has other claims to fame: it's a destination for salmon fishermen, and is the largest community in the lower 48 states to have a true oceanic climate. The monthly average rain is never less than 1.6 inches and the monthly average temperature is never higher than 72 degrees. It's wet and chilly out there.

But this information does not give a complete picture of Forks.  I don't pretend to know the town well.  Towns are as complicated as the residents. Just as every human life contains the stuff of a novel—tragedy, romance, lots of fantasy—every community is a library of those lives, all the varied points of view, the common themes and the contradictions. As a passing visitor, I am aware that my knowledge of Forks is superficial.

However, even the passing visitor can see the civic pride on display in the well-maintained city parks, the clean public areas, and the "Welcome" sign. Forks is a community that has worked hard to keep up appearances through good times and bad. There's a downside to that pride. A friend of mine, who used to work in Forks and still has friends and relatives there, says there's an almost cult-like defensiveness toward outsiders amongst the residents, so much so that my friend was careful not to talk about the Olympic Animal Sanctuary while in Forks. This defensiveness became important later on when the protests against OAS became part of the community narrative.

My first reaction to discovering that the Olympic Animal Sanctuary was right inside Forks was to be hopeful. There would be police officers there, a prosecutor there, witnesses there. I thought that law enforcement would save the dogs. After all, the cops and a former employee had already taken pictures of the conditions and there was no ambiguity about what the pictures showed.

The photos showed overwhelming filth. Grime everywhere. Straw sodden with pee. Smears of dog poop. There were pictures of drinking water green with slime and choked with straw, dirty walls, tufts of fur stuck to rusty wires, garbage, stains, degradation.  And pictures showed dogs stacked up, stored, confined; dogs in crates, dogs in small kennels, dogs desperately barking and jumping for attention, dogs so depressed that they didn't even bother to respond to the snap of flashbulbs.  And pictures of dead dogs.


book text © Laura Koerber

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