Couple finds paradise in animal sanctuary

It’s a perfect spring day at the most unlikely ranch in Lake County. Fuzzy-headed alpacas roam the front yard. Four dogs, a vigilant turkey named Hatfield and a trio of pigs patrol the sprawling front porch.

“This is the baby,” announces a small woman in jeans and work boots. She scoops up a squirming piglet, rescued two days earlier, and kisses him on the snout. “Mommy loves you, baby. Yes, she does!”

“The baby” promptly pees on her.

“Happens all the time,” AnnMarie Roberts says.

For nearly nine years, she has taken in all manner of discarded farm animals and nursed them back to health: chickens with deformed beaks, pigs with arthritis, emus from failed business ventures. There are geese, ducks, goats, donkeys, a highland bull, a miniature horse, alpacas with bad hair.

“To people who breed them, these alpacas are ugly,” explains Keith Roberts, AnnMarie’s husband, chief ranch hand and main benefactor. “Some alpaca people are snobby.”

In all, their family totals nearly 300, all with names: Norman the emu, Fiona the donkey, Buffy the chicken, Sgt. Pickles the pig.

At age 55, AnnMarie cares for them all.

Country Woman Magazine just named her its Country Woman of the Year, moved by a poignant nomination letter from Keith. The honor came with a $500 check.

“We immediately went and bought a whole trailer of hay,” AnnMarie says. “I was so happy.”

Married 24 years, the couple call their slice of paradise Sugarloaf Mountain Ranch _ Sugarloaf being the presumptuously named highest point on the Florida Peninsula, a picturesque 312-foot bump along the state’s spine just outside Clermont.

“The first time I went there, I expected flies,” says Joanne Hart-Rittenhouse, director of the humane education program for the South Lake Animal League. “I couldn’t believe it _ there are no flies, there is no smell. And all the animals seem to get along with one another. It’s my idea of what heaven should look like.”

The farm covers two of the couple’s five acres. The humans _ and a few of the animals _ live in an 1970 single-wide trailer that Keith has encased with rough-cut cypress slabs and added a porch, roof and Florida room. There’s a large shed, a tractor or two, scores of pens, coops and enclosures and a never-ending supply of farm-animal excrement.

“I pick up cow poop, I pick up pig poop, I pick up goat poop and you-name-it poop,” Ann Marie says. “I spend a lot of my day picking up poop.”

It wasn’t how she once envisioned her life. Growing up in New York, working in fashion retail in her 20s, she was allergic to animals, she says. She kept her home spotless.

Then she met Keith, a Florida-born software engineer, who lured her back to his home state, where AnnMarie worked in retail and the couple raised their two kids. The family was living in a townhouse in Apopka when Keith saw a potbellied pig advertised on Craigslist. Still a baby, it was tiny and pink and adorable.

AnnMarie was smitten. She named the pig Penelope.

Two dogs and a second pig soon followed.

“I knew this was the life I wanted,” Keith says, gesturing toward the farm. “I just had to figure out how to get my wife involved. I had to get creative.”

Penelope now weighs 200 pounds, the kids have grown and moved out, and the Robertses have long left the townhouse for the ranch they bought during the recession. Keith works designing health-care software from home, and AnnMarie has learned veterinary care the hard way.

The first Alpaca baby, eight years ago, began to emerge from its mother’s womb toes first and with the umbilical cord wrapped around its neck. At that moment, their vet was over two hours away. AnnMarie, taking instructions from a book and over the phone, had to reach into the birth canal and reposition the offspring. Baby and mama made it through just fine. AnnMarie did too, once she recovered from the trauma.

“She does a very good job,” says Len Lucero of Sumter Mobile Veterinary Services. “And she’s a great person. When she takes in an animal, she really loves that creature and makes sure it has everything it needs. I wish there were more people like her.”

Most of the animals who now live at Sugarloaf Mountain Rescue are here because their previous owners didn’t think things through, like the fraternity that figured a pot-bellied pig would be a good mascot, not realizing it would end up weighing more than most of the frat brothers.

Nor do people often consider the expense, Lucero says. Food, water, hay and vet care add up quickly. Last year, Sugarloaf Mountain Rescue _ now a registered nonprofit corporation _ cost more than $45,000 to operate, nearly all of it from Keith’s income.

“We could live differently,” AnnMarie admits. “We could have a big home or a new car, but I just feel like this is my calling. I feel like God gives me the strength to do this.”

AnnMarie rises at 5:30 each morning and often doesn’t turn in until well after 11 at night. The couple’s two trucks each have over 200,000 miles. And she and Keith haven’t taken a vacation in nine years.

“This is a vacation,” Keith says. “I get off on Friday and my whole personality changes. I can put on my cowboy hat, go out in the back and do whatever needs doing _ digging a hole for poop or building a pen for a pig or fixing a fence …”

In fact, if the nonprofit can bring in enough money, they’ll open up the back three acres to more animals.

“I can’t take in any more rescues until we can afford to expand,” AnnMarie says. “And the ones we have aren’t going anywhere. We don’t eat or sell anything on the farm, and we don’t even adopt them out because they’ve been through enough. We’re here to give them a forever home.”