Harper Wulms was 2 the first time she met Priscilla — a turkey with a rare condition that’s similar to the one she has.
Harper, now 5, was born with symbrachydactyly, a congenital hand abnormality. Harper’s right hand is disproportionately small and is missing one finger. Her parents call it her “lucky hand.”
Harper and her mother were visiting an animal sanctuary near Austin, Texas where they live, when they met Priscilla, a rescued turkey that happened to be born with a “lucky claw.”
The toddler tottered over to the turkey, her mother recalled, and the moment Harper understood the similarity between them, she smiled.
“It was such a coincidence,” said Celine Wulms, Harper’s mother. “Meeting Priscilla has been a gift.”
The bond between Harper and Priscilla perfectly captures the reason Jamie Wallace-Griner started her animal sanctuary, Safe in Austin.
“There is something absolutely magical about watching a child with differences come out here and say, ‘They’re just like me,’ “ Wallace-Griner, 40, said. “When you see Harper holding Priscilla’s lucky hand with her own lucky hand, it just does so much for her heart.”
Priscilla is one of more than 150 animals with a background of abuse, neglect or special needs that Wallace-Griner has rescued and cared for at her sanctuary in Leander, a suburb just north of Austin.
Beyond saving animals that, in most cases, would otherwise be euthanized, Safe in Austin also serves as a haven for people and animals with disabilities, special needs, mental health challenges and traumatic past experiences.
All species are welcome at the sanctuary, regardless of the condition that Wallace-Griner finds them in: “We have animals that are blind or deaf, have diabetes, cerebral palsy, deformities, missing limbs, broken spines . . . they all become part of our family.”
She was inspired to open an animal sanctuary upon witnessing the immense impact a service dog named Angel had on her autistic son, Jackson. Angel was 6 when they got her in 2012.
“Angel gave my son confidence and strength beyond anything I was capable of doing as his mother,” she said. “We saw a dramatic difference within weeks.”
Angel, who passed away two years ago, was a big, fluffy Great Pyrenees who was specifically trained to temper and protect Jackson.
“The security of having an animal that understood him and what he was going through changed everything,” Wallace-Griner said.
Her son’s relationship with Angel propelled Wallace-Griner to create a safe space for people and animals to form bonds and love one another without any judgment.
In 2014, she and her husband, David Griner, a lawyer, bought an overgrown, unkempt 10-acre ranch, with the intention of moving their family of five there and creating a home for neglected animals.
Wallace-Griner said they now have “20 dogs, 14 cats, eight horses, 32 goats, four rabbits, three tortoises, one parrot, four turkeys, lots of chickens, 18 pigs and four cows.”
Every one of them has a name.
“Except some of the chickens are doubled up because they look the exact same,” she said. “We have eight chickens named Ashley.”
There’s also a 250-pound potbellied pig named Peter; a family of goats named Sapphire, Curly and Ruby; plus a tortoise called Rex.
Initially, friends of friends with special needs children would request to visit the sanctuary. As word got out, more people asked to come, and bonds continued to form between visitors and animals.
“It just kept getting bigger and bigger and I realized that it was time to open up in a way that would help more people and more animals,” Wallace-Griner said.
For several years, the cost of rescuing and caring for the animals rested exclusively on the Griners. But as veterinary bills, medication, food and the cost of other supplies mounted, the couple decided to officially make Safe in Austin a nonprofit organization in 2018 to accept donations. While the suggested donation amount is $25 per family, visitors may enter for free.
Just as they welcome all animals, all people are welcome, too: “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,” said Wallace-Griner.
Gracelyn Woods, a 9-year-old girl who moved to Austin in June with her family, was struggling with the transition and the coronavirus pandemic, her mother said.
“The ranch has helped our little one embrace change,” said Jess Woods, Gracelyn’s mother, adding that they visit weekly. “We kept coming back and our daughter started coming out of her shell. Life just sparked back into her.”
Before the pandemic, Safe in Austin would host “public days” on weekends, in which groups could come walk through the sanctuary, guided by volunteers — many of whom were once visitors, including Harper and Celine Wulms, who now volunteer weekly. To accommodate pandemic restrictions, the sanctuary has shifted to private family tours and what they call “healing hearts” tours only.
“If anybody emails that is having a hard time for any reason, we invite them out for a healing hearts tour. I ask them for a little background as to what they’re dealing with, and I decide which animals to introduce them to,” Wallace-Griner said.
“Covid is hard on everyone, neurotypical or not, but for special-needs kids it heightens every aspect of what is different about them,” she added. “A lot of people really needed us during the pandemic.”
Skylar Carson, 28, volunteers five days a week at the sanctuary, and she first came as a visitor in need of support.
“I have a background of childhood trauma,” she said, adding that the sanctuary has played a pivotal role in helping her heal.
For Carson, what makes Safe in Austin a second home for her is “the unconditional love, the grace and the freedom to make a difference no matter what your story is — whether you’re a kid or an adult or an animal.”
While she feels bonded to all the animals at the sanctuary, there is one recent addition that Carson is particularly fond of: a calf named Ruby Sue.
Wallace-Griner rescued Ruby Sue from a beef cattle ranch in South Texas. She was born with a genetic defect known as Curly Calf syndrome, which usually results in calves being stillborn.
“From the hips up, she is a healthy, loving calf,” said Wallace-Griner, explaining that her spine and hind legs are fused together, preventing her from walking.
“When she got home, I fed her the first bottle,” said Carson. “I have a shirt that says, ‘a cow is my best friend’ and we made her a bandanna that says, ‘a human is my best friend.’ “
When Wallace-Griner posted photos and videos of Ruby Sue to Safe in Austin’s social media pages, a pet supply company specializing in manufacturing equipment for disabled pets reached out and offered her a custom wheelchair.
“We knew we wanted to help her live longer,” said Mikayla Feehan, social media coordinator at Walkin’ Pets.
On Sept. 19, Ruby Sue took her first steps, with the help of her new wheels.
The company has also donated several wheelchairs to animals at the sanctuary in the past.
“We have four dogs with broken spines or paralysis that use wheelchairs to get around, and they donated all of those chairs to us,” Wallace-Griner said.
This week, a rescued dog named Halo received a prosthetic leg.
“She actually ran,” Wallace-Griner said.
She revels in moments like these, but above all, her favorite part of the farm is helping animals give hope and confidence to those who need it.
“This is a place for anyone who’s heart is in need of some unconditional love and friendship,” Wallace-Griner said.