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Owners, animals at Rolling Dog Animal Sanctuary settling in

August 04, 2010
LANCASTER — It took 17 trips for Alayne Marker and Steve Smith to move nearly 60 blind and disabled animals to their new 120-acre Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in Lancaster from the remote Blackfoot River Valley in the Rockies of western Montana where they had operated for 10 years.

The second and last moving van pulled off the North Road on Saturday, July 24, and passed through the sanctuary's gate. This delivery was followed two days later by the arrival of the last flatbed trailer load.

In total, professional drivers delivered two moving van loads, seven flatbed trailer loads, two semi-truck flatbed trailer loads, the dog-and-cat caravan, two large animal trailer loads, plus the trips that they made themselves, each hauling a trailer with animals on board in addition to Steve's mid-April trip in a truck hauling a horse trailer.

The Ranch's original location was in Ovando, Mont., halfway between Missoula and Helena, the state's capital. One of the appeals of their new Cos location is its closeness to services in nearby villages, including stores in Lancaster and veterinarians Dr. Chris Plumley and Dr. Nancy Lefavour and their staff at the Whitefield Animal Hospital.

Working out all the travel logistics, including health certificates for all the animals — blind dogs, blind cats, and blind horses, some of which have other neurological and orthopedic disabilities plus a couple of goats — was a time-consuming task. Both planning and money was involved in preparing their house, barns and fields for new uses. The extensive fencing alone cost $40,000, Steve explained. Their neighbor Jim Dubreuil built ramps onto the Sanctuary's double-sided house so that elderly and disabled dogs can easily go in and out of the building.

Handling and monitoring the horses' switch from Montana hay to the green and rich grass in their fields also took time and considerable thought. The couple had five tons of Montana hay moved to the East so that the blind horses could make a gradual switch to New Hampshire nutrition.

Each one's scheduled outdoor time for grazing was gradually increased, and the horses never suffered any gastrointestinal distress.

Steve and Alayne introduced a number of their dogs and horses by name on Wednesday afternoon and provided brief background sketches of how they happened to be referred to their Sanctuary by an animal shelter to bring them under their care.

Steve walked across a pasture to talk to Lena, a handsome more-than-10-year-old registered Quarter Horse that was a victim of training abuse. In a misguided effort to break her of her tendency to rear up, her trainer rigged the reins so that she would flip over backwards when she did so. Four times, Steve explained, Lena flipped over backwards, and the repeated blows to her head damaged her optic nerve, leaving her blind.

The mare arrived at their 160-acre Montana Ranch "scared and scarred," as Steve described it, having been at the bottom of a large herd's pecking order. With patient care, however, Lena learned to be gentle and trusting, and she now acts as a kind of foster mother to foals as young as four weeks old that come to the Sanctuary. Blind horses lack the visual cues by which they can learn boundaries and become socialized, and Lena is able to teach the newcomers horse manners, Steve explained.

Some horses are born blind and others become blind. In either case, Alayne and Steve say, with proper care and surroundings they can enjoy a high-quality life.

Many of the animals at Rolling Dog arrive with multiple health problems, although these are often unknown because blindness is their most obvious, top-of-the-list problem.

Rolling Dog is an animal shelter of "last resort," the couple explained. Animals make their way to the sanctuary through the efforts of animal shelters across the country that are seeking to find a place for a blind dog, cat, or horse that would otherwise be very likely to be euthanized.

The sanctuary will in no way displace the much-needed services already provided by existing animal shelters in the North Country, and the couple does not anticipate taking in strays left outside their gates.

The sanctuary is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable organization that is supported entirely by private contributions.

Donors from across the nation contribute to supporting the sanctuary. They keep up to date on the welfare of all the disabled sheltered animals by reading regularly issued electronic newsletters as well as via Steve's frequent blogs.

Contributors sent e-mail messages of support and continued to send needed dollars when the couple first announced on the Internet that they were moving east to Lancaster. They told supporters that they had found a spot where making long-range succession plans would be far easier as they age, and also where fuel and other overhead costs would be lower.

The sanctuary also has some international donors in neighboring countries like Mexico and Canada as well as further afield. Steve pointed out, for example, that the winner of a recent quilt raffle lives in Switzerland.

Steve and Alayne met one another in 1994 in Bellevue, Wash. Although they both worked for the Boeing Company, they met in a mountain park that was a destination for runners. Alayne recalled that she was walking Spats, her Black Lab that sported a white chest and white feet. "I walked there all the time, and Spats paid no attention to the runners," she said. But that day, Alayne said, Spats took off after one of the runners, his tail circling like a helicopter rotor.

When Steve returned the dog to its owner, the couple introduced themselves and they were married to one another within five months.

As is often true of members of the Boomer Generation, the couple put in 14-hour days — 7:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. — working to care for the rescued animals.

"Every day is a deadline day," Steve explained, adding that they cannot accommodate drop-in visitors. "We usually open up the sanctuary in the summer months to those who make appointments, but this summer we're just too busy, too pressed to get everything organized before winter sets in."

On Wednesday, Chad Labounty of Lancaster was on hand working on the plumbing. Fitch Fuel had just installed two woodstoves, with the expectation that some of the wood will be cut on the place. Their horses' winter hay supply has already been ordered from the Dubreuil Farm.

Until they work out some insurance issues surrounding the use of volunteers, Alayne and Steve are only collecting the names via e-mail (steve@rollingdogranch.org) of those who would like to take on some special projects in the future.

Those interested in more information may go to www.rollingdogranch.org.

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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