via USA Today:
Pet Talk: Pair's wonderful way with disabled animals is rewarded
By Sharon L. Peters, Special for USA TODAY
Sometimes good things happen to good people.
This is one of those times.
It's the story of Alayne Marker and Steve Smith, a married couple who had high-power jobs — he was a corporate communications guy, she a corporate attorney — then left it all behind to move to middle-of-nowhere Montana to start an animal sanctuary.
Takes some guts to do that, of course. Couple of Brooks Brothers folks in their 40s — the height of their earning potential — downshifting from Seattle city life and fat paychecks to a little creekside house with urine-proof floors. But there's more. They take in animals that shelters can't deal with: disabled ones. Blind horses. Dogs with three legs, or neurological or orthopedic issues, or blindness. Cats that are blind or can't walk well because of congenital or neurological issues.
I made the couple's acquaintance about three years ago after I'd heard about their extraordinary non-profit — Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Ovando, Mont. — and decided to do a story.
We spent hours talking about the farm-tending skills they had gained through on-the-job training and the animal-care expertise absorbed from friendly veterinarians who understood that some of the animals would need middle-of-the night interventions that couldn't wait for the 90-minute drive into town.
We laughed about the endless ice-chopping and snow shoveling/plowing required for more months than anyone who doesn't live in the Rockies might imagine. And they spoke lovingly, endlessly, of the animals they'd taken in, including Lena the blind mare that was teaching them volumes about how happy a sightless horse could be if understood by humans, and Pappy the ancient German shepherd who refused to have a bad day.
It would have been easy to suppose that while the couple were well-meaning, they would eventually be driven off by the isolation, manual labor, round-the-clock care of animals and nasty winters — in short, by the very essence of the life and circumstances to which they'd assigned themselves. But you couldn't make that supposition if you heard the passion roiling just beneath their soft-spoken demeanors and their commitment to every individual in their care.
You would have sensed, although they never said this, that every shred of knowledge they'd developed in their previous lives would be applied to this new one to ensure that good intentions were always framed by sensible management, careful growth and strategic thinking.
Nine years after they embarked on all this, Marker and Smith are still strong. So is Rolling Dog Ranch (rollingdogranch.org), 70 or so animals living happily and fully in a place where their disabilities are regarded as nothing more than a reality that alters some things but doesn't diminish their zest.
And (this doesn't happen often enough in the animal rescue world), Marker and Smith are receiving a big-deal honor Thursday: the ASPCA's 2009 Henry Bergh Award, named for its founder.
Not much has changed since the couple embarked on this dream nearly a decade ago. Some of the animals have. A few have passed on. Marker and Smith always get a little emotional when they speak of them.
But the core intent has remained constant. Every animal gets not only top-notch medical care (yearly vet bills run $40,000 to $50,000), but also lots of love, attention and hugs. Most of the 40 dogs sleep in heated "dog cottages" at night but spend their days romping in dog-proof paddocks and roaming in and out of the couple's house, where they settle on a favorite chair, doggie bed or, in Dexter the dachshund's case, pile of freshly washed fleece bedding (five to seven loads of laundry a day is the norm). The cats have a cabin where they soak up sunshine, snuggle into warm laps and play with toys. And the blind horses are paired up in pastures or stabled with others so they're never alone or afraid.
Marker and Smith are charmed by the animals' individual quirks. Widget the beagle mix is seriously attached to a certain section of the futon, so everyone else must move when it's her nap time. Goldie the cocker spaniel mix lives for the sound of the UPS truck and rips into anything left behind.
The work is ceaseless. It takes three or four hours to do the morning feeding, cleaning and chores (and nearly that much at night); a vet visit is required about once a week; some need daily meds; Travis, the dog with the fused jaw, requires a special feeding protocol; and these days Rosie the blind mare, who had colic so severe she required surgery ($5,700), is on "stall rest" and must have a half-mile controlled daily walk.
Smith and Marker never leave the ranch together. When one goes to the supermarket or the dentist or a vet — sometimes to the teaching hospital in Washington hours away — the other stays put. The one time they left together (for an anniversary dinner), they got so edgy they returned home.
Marker is flying sans partner to New York to receive the award, which they see not as commendation for their work but "recognition of the value of disabled animals," Marker told me last week. "The only handicap an animal has is what the human transfers onto it."
Their animals are proof.
So while the full force of winter, with minus-20-degree temperatures and 3-foot snowdrifts, will soon lash their little huddle of buildings, Marker and Smith will again simply haul out the shovels, hunker down, and revel in loving and being loved by a pack of throw-aways they believe they're lucky to have.