The plan, says Alayne Marker of the Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary, was for her and her husband to work until retirement age, then start on their dream of building a haven dedicated to disabled animals. But dreams sometimes have a funny way of not waiting to come true.
In 2000, rather than working for another 10 to 15 years and then retiring, Marker and her husband Steve Smith quit well-paying jobs at the Boeing Company in Seattle and started the Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Montana. "In 1998, we had bought 160 acres of land in the Blackfoot River Valley," she explains to PEOPLEPets.com. "We were going to keep working at Boeing, but once we bought the land, we realized we couldn't wait. The time for the animals was that time."
Today, Marker and Smith care — unassisted — for 70 disabled animals that come from shelters and rescue groups across the country. There is Maggie, a dog blinded by physical abuse. "She has such an incredible capacity to forgive," Marker says of the pup, who is thriving at the ranch. Bailey (pictured above with Alayne and Steve) is a miniature dachshund with spinal problems who was rescued from an animal hoarder several years ago.
The couple's lifestyle change wasn't as drastic as it sounds, insists Marker. "We never even had a conversation about it," she says. The couple had already been rescuing and housing disabled animals in their Seattle home. "Those animals needed a safety net. We wanted to change the public misperception about disabled animals. They can have such a good quality of life and we wanted to give it to them."
Using their personal savings, the two built the Rolling Dog Ranch from scratch. They opened their doors in December 2000 to welcome their first resident: a mare named Lena who had been blinded by cruel training methods that damaged her optic nerve and spine. "The owner wanted to get rid of Lena," says Marker. "So we took her in."
Now, she says, "We focus on dogs, cats and horses who are blind, deaf, three-legged, or have orthopedic or neurological issues." The Rolling Dog Ranch is deluged with requests to take disabled animals. "It's heartbreaking to see their photos," says Marker. "We wish we could take them all in, but we have a limited amount of resources." Supported entirely by donations, last year the ranch's veterinary bills exceeded $52,000. Last month, the couple received the ASPCA's Henry Bergh Award for their "exceptional work, bravery and compassion in animal welfare."
And not all the stories are sad. Charlie, a blind Beagle, successfully underwent eye surgery while living at the ranch and got his sight back. Today, the dog is living with a family in Olympia, Wash.
"Don't feel sorry for disabled animals," says Smith. "They don't want your pity. They just want a chance to enjoy life."