USA Today, March 6, 2007
Home for the least loved: Ranch for abused, disabled animals runs on dedication.
By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY
On any given winter morning, Alayne Marker says, the scene at her Rocky Mountain ranch is much the same.
Babe the black German shepherd runs full throttle, slamming through chest-high snow in search of the toy she left outside last night. Two Labs, Luke and Allie, engage in a rambunctious wrestling match. Nearby, Levi, a chow/Lab mix, coaxes Patti, the shepherd mix, and Cedar, a husky mix, into a romp. All the animals in the snow-day antics are fit and confident. They’re also all blind. All except Allie. She has cerebellar hypoplasia, which affects coordination and balance and knocks her off course sometimes.
The six are among the residents of the Rolling Dog Sanctuary in Ovando, Mont., home to 80 dogs, cats and horses, most of them disabled — blind, deaf, three-legged, neurologically damaged — often through abuse or neglect.
“They don’t see themselves as physically limited,” says Marker, who with her husband, Steve Smith, founded the non-profit sanctuary six years ago. “They adapt and they have fun and they are an inspiration every day.”
There’s Spinner, the blind and deaf husky mix, who seems to have developed an extra sense for navigating through life and finding a pal to curl up with; Cody, the three-legged Lab mix who survived being hit by a car, an amputation and cancer and now plays kamikaze dive-bomb games with the other dogs; and Dusty the husky, a former lead sled dog who became useless to his owner when he went blind.
Ours are animals that were certain to be euthanized, or, in the horses’ cases, wind up in the slaughterhouse, but someone special saw them, stepped in and contacted us,” Marker says.
On paper, the founders of the non-profit sanctuary seem an unlikely pair for this endeavor. She’s a lawyer who spent years hauling down big bucks at Boeing in Seattle; he grew up abroad, a foreign-service brat who continued the family tradition, serving in Venezuela, Nigeria and Sri Lanka before leaving the corps and becoming a well-compensated Boeing exec.
They met in 1994, not at work but in a park when her dog began following him as he jogged past. Soon they married and gradually began caring for rescued dogs, adding to the six cats from Sri Lanka he had transported back to the USA.
While on vacation in 1998, they fell in love with the Blackfoot River Valley in remote northwestern Montana, a high-plains grassland where cottonwoods, aspen and sagebrush flourish in summer, and where in winter the snow, often 3 feet deep, is whipped into white-outs by the harsh, sub-zero winds.
They bought 160 acres, put a 1,400-square-foot modular house on it and figured they’d save a stash, take early retirement in 15 years and establish a little sanctuary there for discarded animals.
But once their hearts were committed, they concluded, “it shouldn’t be about our convenience but about the animals’ needs,” Marker says.
So in 2000, they quit their jobs, moved east and within days had their first official sanctuary rescue. A delivery woman spoke of a quarter horse blinded by training abuse. Nina, a pretty chestnut, arrived soon thereafter. Every month additional animals arrived. The horses are housed in solid little barns, the dogs and cats in heated sleeping cabins with cots.
Though most of the animals don’t require a lot of special medical attention once vets have done the preliminary medical intervention, their sheer number turns their care into a 14- or 16-hour-a-day life for the couple (and 24-hour workdays are not unheard of).
Every day there are two meals for the animals; manure removal; watering; medications for some; sleeping crates to scrub; litter boxes to clean. Every day they move the horses from the barns to corrals for sunshine and exercise; every morning they shift the dogs from the cabins to doggie corrals for day-long playtime, then to the couple’s house so every dog gets regular in-the-home time. Daily animal baths take place during mud season.
There are regular trips to the vet an hour away, afternoons when they move 3 or 4 tons of hay to the barns, and endless pleas from animal lovers and shelters who know of yet another special-needs animal certain to be euthanized soon.
“There’s really no way to train for this kind of life,” Smith says.
Learning as they go
But on-the-job training has taught them how to run IVs in an ailing horse, operate the tractor, nurture newcomers into a sense of belonging and sense when an animal is struggling silently. They’ve also learned about limits: They can handle 80 animals, no more. Only when one is adopted or dies does another get to come.
“Sometimes we’ve said no and it’s haunted us,” Marker says. “But we have a responsibility to the ones we have. We can’t do anything … that will jeopardize those we have.”
They’d like to expand. But doing that requires hiring help and acquiring more land, both of which will require much more than the nearly $300,000 a year they already spend on the animals.
After six years of living with the animals, though, they can’t imagine doing anything else.
“We’ll do this for a long, long time, as long as we’re able,” Smith says. And they’ll take steps to ensure “that this is a non-profit that continues long after we’re gone.”
A LUCKY FEW ARE ADOPTED
When Steve Smith and Alayne Marker opened the sanctuary, they imagined they’d be caring for each animal until the end of its life. They’ve been surprised to discover that many volunteers and visitors to the ranch make a special connection with an animal and want to adopt it.
“Most of these animals will, in fact, be here until they die,” says Marker, but “when it has been appropriate,” the sanctuary has cheerfully sent animals off to new homes, normally 10 or 12 of them a year.
Among those that have been adopted:
- Rudy, a young, high-energy terrier/poodle mix from Salt Lake City with cerebellar hypoplasia, which causes wobbling, weaving and the occasional tipping over.
- Cookie, a blind Springer spaniel the courts took from animal hoarders who had bred her again and again.
- Cheyenne, a border collie mix stray who lost half of a front leg, apparently in a trap.
- Spirit, an abused Yorkie, paralyzed in the front legs.
Smith and Marker spend hours every week with each animal they take in, so saying goodbye to one “leaves a big gap in our hearts,” Smith says.
But then again, placing one animal allows them to take in another.