When she was in her 40s, Alayne Marker occupied an enviable spot. As a contracts and insurance attorney for Boeing in Seattle, Marker raked in big bucks doing work she enjoyed. She regularly jetted off to New York, Los Angeles and Bermuda for meetings; on weekends she exercised, prowled chic stores and plugged into the urban lifestyle.
Now 52, Marker is living and working in an entirely different orbit-in remote Ovando, Mont. (pop. 71), 60 miles from Missoula, the closest city.
Around daybreak each morning, she hauls on her muck boots and strides out of her 1,400-square-foot modular home in the Montana plains to the nearby outbuildings. Marker spends the next 14 hours cleaning crates, shoveling manure and tending to 80 disabled dogs, cats and horses.
"I was very lucky to have had great bosses, interesting work and a wonderful lifestyle [in Seattle], but now I feel every day, every hour that I'm making a difference," Marker says.
She and husband Steve Smith, 50, a former Foreign Service officer and Boeing executive, founded the 160-acre Rolling Dog Ranch Animal Sanctuary in 2000.
The nonprofit ranch takes in animals facing euthanization due to blindness, missing limbs, deformities or neurological problems. Residents come from throughout the country as well as Mexico and Canada, usually from shelters and horse farms that contact the sanctuary as a last resort.
Dogs and cats that are accepted-and it's a for-the-rest-of-the-animal's-life commitment-are loaded onto planes and flown to Missoula or Spokane; horses are transported by van.
"We just migrated mentally to doing this," Marker says. The couple had a smaller-scale animal rescue effort in Washington and had planned to hold off making it their joint full-time work until they retired. But "we quickly concluded the need wouldn't wait."
Now blind horses roam about their pastures. Dogs frolic and soak up the sunshine in "paddocks" that keep them from wandering too far, and they all wiggle with glee when someone approaches to rub their ears or toss a tennis ball.
Caring for so many special-needs animals without hired help is not only expensive-about $260,000 a year, covered by donations to the ranch-it has forced Marker to learn many new skills. She's now a master at driving the tractor and two trucks.
She moves half-ton bales with a hay-fork attachment, operates snow removal equipment and repairs fences. She also has developed an instinct for knowing when an animal is struggling.
Marker jokes that it's no longer necessary to hit the gym: She's two clothing sizes smaller now, simply by virtue of her daily routines.
"Some people comment that they think we're giving up a lot to do this," she says. "But, gosh, look what we're getting to do."
The biggest downside is the frequent "gut-wrenching decision" to turn away animals in need, Marker says. Although the couple has expansion dreams, they know 80 animals is all they can handle while maintaining their wards' quality of life. So newcomers are accepted only when one of their beloved residents dies or, rarely, is adopted.
"These animals are an inspiration every day," Marker says, "the way they adapt and find joy."