'Just Absolute Magic': Texas Rescue Offers Space, Healing for Special-Needs Animals
The Safe in Austin story begins with a Great Pyrenees named Angel.
Jamie Wallace-Griner and her husband, David Griner, have three kids, including Jackson, who has autism. When Jackson was younger he was afraid of being alone, didn't like change, and rarely spoke. Wallace-Griner started researching service dogs who could help people living with autism, and eventually brought Angel home to their family in 2012.
"She healed parts of his heart that even I couldn't get to as his mother," Wallace-Griner says. Angel provided Jackson with confidence and protection from his fears. Angel was trained to listen to Jackson's heart rate and keep him calm.
"The parts of her that really changed his life were just the unconditional love and understanding that the two of them had," she says.
The connection between Angel and Jackson showed the Griner family what could be possible when you put animals and children together, especially special-needs animals and children. "That's where the concept of saving the animals that other people consider broken and introducing them to children and people going through the same issues came from," Wallace-Griner says. Thus, Safe in Austin was born.
Where Unconditional Love Thrives
In 2014, the Griner family was living in Austin with one pig, two goats, five dogs, and a few chickens. Realizing they needed more land, the family bought a broken-down ranch outside of Austin where they could continue to expand their rescue. Now, the Safe in Austin farm currently houses around 150 animals (including the chickens).
Safe in Austin rescues animals from severe abuse or neglect—including dogs, cats, cows, horses, pigs, and goats. They rehabilitate and rehome the ones that they're able to help, and offer a safe and loving home for the others. The Griners now have a constant influx of animals, and Wallace-Griner says having to turn an animal in need away is always the worst part of her day.
Before the pandemic, Safe in Austin held regular events for the public to come visit the animals. Now, the group has shifted to smaller, specialized programming through their "healing hearts" tours. Designed for visitors with special needs, or those who may dealing with trauma or fear, visitors are able to come out and meet the animals. Wallace-Griner asks the visitors about their story, concentrates on introducing them to animals they might relate to, and then lets the animals do the rest.
"It's just absolute magic when a child with cerebral palsy meets a goat with [a similar condition]…or when the wheelchair-bound kids are wheeling around with all the wheelchair dogs," she says.
Harper Wulms is a frequent Safe in Austin visitor. The 5-year-old was born with symbrachydactyly, a congenital hand abnormality. The little one first met Priscilla, a turkey born with a "lucky claw," when she was two. "It was such a coincidence," Celine Wulms, Harper's mother, told The Washington Post. "Meeting Priscilla has been a gift."
Healing hearts visits are offered at no cost because Wallace-Griner believes "that everyone deserves love whether they can afford it or not."
It's a challenge for Safe in Austin to be that accessible as the group runs exclusively on donations. Vet bills for animals with prosthetics, amputations, lifelong illnesses, diabetes, and ongoing medical care are the most expensive part of their operation (along with feeding all of the animals). "It would be a lot easier if I didn't bring in the 'broken' ones,' " Wallace-Griner says.
Before starting Safe in Austin, Wallace-Griner was a ballet teacher with virtually no animal-care experience. Empathy is what drives her to continue her work with animals—consulting veterinarians and Google helps with the rest. "I'm an autism mommy and I really like giving hugs, and that's about the extent of it," she says.
"The moments that sit on my heart the longest are when the moms break down and just look at me and thank me for the chance to be in a space that is safe for their children that they love so much but the rest of the world sees in a different light," she says.
Wallace-Griner says they try to teach and show unconditional kindness to everyone who visits Safe in Austin. "Animals don't care what you look like, or what you've done, or what you say, or where you've been, or how much money you have. Animals automatically unconditionally love if you're there for the right reasons."
The organization is one of many Austin-based rescue operations featured in That Animal Rescue Show, a 10-episode docuseries that premiered on CBS All Access Oct. 29, 2020. In Dec. 2021, Wallace-Griner and her dedicated crew appeared in season six of the makeover show Queer Eye, dubbed the 'Snow White of Central Texas'. Among many delightful surprises and much-needed rest prompted by the Fab 5's visit, designer Bobby Berk helped Wallace-Griner realize a longstanding dream: building a fully-functioning barn to help house and protect more than 100 animals and provide additional space for animal-children interactions.
"Humbled, blessed, and forever grateful for the gift that made 2021, the year of the barn," Wallace-Griner posted on social media. "We couldn't have done it without Netflix, Queer Eye, and all of you, our rescue family. It's such a beautiful gift during what was such a difficult year."