Rescuing injured or abandoned animals is one of the most rewarding pursuits we can experience. As those who put themselves on the line to ensure the well-being of other creatures will tell you, the special bond they share with the animals they’ve helped is a natural high that soothes the human soul and heals the psyche like little else.
Now, one Texas animal sanctuary is taking this concept of “Who saved who?” even further.
Safe in Austin is the brainchild of Jamie Wallace-Griner. The project took shape as she observed the interaction between her autistic son and his service dog, Angel.
“We have always loved animals, but when Angel joined our family it became insanely clear how the love of an animal can be literally, miraculous!” she said. “Angel gave my son confidence and strength beyond anything I was capable of doing as his mother. She provided protection from his fears, understanding of his thoughts, and power over his disabilities.”
Knowing firsthand that one of the most difficult emotional challenges for children who are differently-abled or whose behavior or appearance sets them apart from their peers comes from the feeling that they don’t fit in, Wallace-Griner and her husband, David Griner, purchased an old ranch in Leander, Texas, with dreams of turning it into a judgment-free animal sanctuary and rehabilitation center.
But more than that, it would also offer a safe haven to kids with special needs, disabilities, mental health issues, or histories of past emotional trauma.
Wallace-Griner says Safe in Austin’s mission is “to rescue animals from severe abuse or neglect, rehabilitate and rehome the ones that are able, and offer a safe and loving forever home for the rest.
“Once they are healthy enough and we have earned their trust; we introduce our rescues to children that come from similar backgrounds of abuse, neglect, and/or special needs. Our animals provide healing to trauma, at-risk, and/or special needs children by way of unconditional friendship and a clear, loving, example of what they are looking for most… hope.”
Over the years, as the ranch has been rehabbed, the population has grown to include chickens, pigs, and goats, many of whom have special needs.
“We have animals that are blind or deaf, have diabetes, cerebral palsy, deformities, missing limbs, broken spines … they all become part of our family,” Wallace-Griner told The Washington Post.
The current menagerie numbers 20 dogs, 14 cats, eight horses, 32 goats, four rabbits, three tortoises, one parrot, four turkeys, numerous chickens, 18 pigs, and four cows.
Peter, a 250-pound potbellied pig is a crowd-pleasing favorite with visitors, as is Ruby Sue, a paralyzed calf who perambulates pretty handily thanks to her own specially-built wheelchair.
As with their furry and feathered friends, humans of all shapes, sizes, and descriptions are welcome at the sanctuary. “We don’t care about the choices you made in the past, what you look like, who you love, or what you eat. We concentrate on no judgment at all,” Wallace-Griner said.
Prior to COVID-19, Safe in Austin was open to members of the public who toured the sanctuary led by volunteer guides. The pandemic meant enacting safety restrictions, which limited the number of guests that could be safely accommodated. The sanctuary has since made the switch to pre-arranged private family and small-group tours.
Even so, Wallace-Griner strives to ensure that anyone in need will still be made welcome. She fields emails from potential visitors, and after delving into the specific issues they’re dealing with, she invites them out for a “healing hearts tour” to meet and interact with those animals she feels will best meet the needs of their given situations.
Having to adapt to change and challenge is all part of the process and Wallace-Griner remains positive. She sees Safe in Austin as a work in progress, never losing sight of the sanctuary’s ultimate goals of healing, acceptance, and unconditional love.
“You never soar so high as when you stoop down to help a child or an animal,” she said. “Saving one animal with not change the world, but for that one animal, the world will change forever!”