It’s not everyday that you see a calf rolling around in a wheelchair. Ruby Sue isn’t like most cows, she has a genetic defect called Curly Calf syndrome. It usually results in stillborns, but Ruby Sue beat the odds, though her spine and back legs are fused together which makes walking impossible without her wheelchair.
It doesn’t matter though, because she’s surrounded by animals just like herself and they have daily visitors from families, many with children who have mental or physical disabilities.
Ruby Sue calls Safe in Austin home, a ranch that’s owned and operated by Jamie Wallace-Griner and her husband. “There is something absolutely magical about watching a child with differences come out here and say, ‘They’re just like me,’ ” Wallace-Griner told The Washington Post.
This couldn’t be more true for Harper Wulms. The 5-year-old was born with symbrachydactyly, a congenital hand abnormality and has been visiting Safe in Austin for three years. She has a special bond with Priscilla — a turkey with a claw condition similar to her own.
Harper and her mother Celine Wulms call it Priscilla’s “lucky claw.” Harper’s mother recalled the first time her daughter encountered Priscilla and said meeting the turkey “has been a gift.” It’s this sort of connection between animals and children that helped form Safe in Austin.
The ranch grew out of a special relationship
Wallace-Griner knows that there’s something special when a child with special needs encounters an animal and has that moment when they realize “They’re just like me.” This is what Safe in Austin is all about. “When you see Harper holding Priscilla’s lucky hand with her own lucky hand, it just does so much for her heart,” Wallace-Griner said.
The ranch grew out of the relationship the owners’ son had with his dog Angel. Jackson, who is Autistic, was 6 when Angel, a white Great Pyrenees came to live with the family. “Angel gave my son confidence and strength beyond anything I was capable of doing as his mother,” Wallace-Griner said. “We saw a dramatic difference within weeks.”
That was in 2012 and although Angel passed away in 2018, the security such a loving animal was able to give their son led to the couple opening the ranch in 2014. Today, more than 150 animals call the ranch home. Their backgrounds range from neglect and abuse to 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,” explained Wallace-Griner.
There are dogs, turkeys, chickens, goats, pigs, horses, rabbits, cows, even a parrot, and three tortoises. Each animal has its own name, though Wallace-Griner said the chickens’ names do repeat because they look exactly the same. “We have eight chickens named Ashley.”
Word of mouth began to spread and soon, families from all around the Austin area were coming to visit the ranch. Jess Woods took her 9-year-old daughter Gracelyn after the family made the move to Austin and the child was struggling with the transition and the COVID-19 pandemic. “The ranch has helped our little one embrace change,” said Gracelyn’s mother. “We kept coming back and our daughter started coming out of her shell. Life just sparked back into her.”
Building a place of unconditional love and friendship
Running such a ranch and caring for all those animals doesn’t come without its challenges. In 2018, the couple realized that in order to keep up with mounting vet bills and operating costs they would need to register as a non-profit. A $25 donation per family is suggested, though anyone can enter for free. The ranch also depends heavily on volunteers.
Skylar Carson first came to the sanctuary in need of support but now volunteers up to five days a week. “I have a background of childhood trauma,” the 28-year-old said before adding that the ranch has been instrumental in her own healing.
In early 2020, the ranch launched a campaign, pleading for donations to help them expand to accommodate the needs of their animals. “Our special needs building houses several of our most critically special needs animals, and we are running out of room,” Wallace-Griner told KVUE News. “It is imperative that we always have enough room for any kid, no matter if they’re differently abled or not, to be able to go into that room and spend time and space with those animals.”
Thankfully, news of the good the ranch is doing and has helped it to garner some pretty high-profile publicity. In August, 2020, it was featured on Dr. Phil … the doc also adopted two of the ranch’s puppies.
While the pandemic has only made running this very special ranch even more difficult, Wallace-Griner and her husband have found ways to adapt. The ranch had to shift to private “healing hearts” tours. Though in October it was able to hold a socially distanced Fall Family Fun Fest.
For Ruby Sue and the other animals of Safe in Austin, this ranch is a place of hope, and Wallace-Griner believes it will continue to truly make a difference in the lives of all who visit.
“This is a place for anyone who’s heart is in need of some unconditional love and friendship,” she said.
Photos via Safe in Austin/Facebook