'Just like me': Austin-area kids with special needs meet rescue animal pals
Three-year-old Ace JJ loves to play chase.
But because Ace has cerebral palsy, it can be a challenge to find empathetic playmates who understand what it's like to play chase with a walker.
That's why Ace likes spending time with Francis. A 3-year-old rescue dog whose back legs were paralyzed after a car accident, Francis also uses wheels to get around.
“The first time we came, my heart warmed up and then it melted,” Ace's mom, Vanessa Ruelas, said. “He was like, 'He has wheels just like me! His walker is blue! Let's go for a race, Francis!'”
The bond between Ace and Francis is exactly what Jamie Griner dreamed of when she founded the nonprofit Safe in Austin, a 10-acre rescue ranch in Leander that's home to more than 120 animals, all of which have special needs. Safe in Austin's mission is to rescue animals who will, in turn, inspire and heal children who have special needs or have come from hard places.
“We invite children who also come from any form of abuse, neglect or have special needs out to the rescue to touch and love and heal alongside the animals,” said Jamie Griner, 39. “That's why our mission is 'rescuing animals, rescuing children.'”
In the beginning
The way her mom remembers it, Jamie Griner has always been an animal lover.
“When she was little, her brother stomped an anthill and she came in hysterical, just hysterical,” her mom, Karen Shives, said. “She has just such a big heart.”
The former dancer and ballet teacher found an animal-loving equal in her husband, David Griner, 59. Shives recalled a particular visit when David Griner asked her to protect a spider that had been camped out on the property.
“I hear, 'Karen, I need to tell you something,'” Shives said. “'There is a spider that lives right above the door. You cannot kill the spider. Just let it go. It will go away.'”
“Spiders are there because they eat the bugs that we really don't want,” David Griner interjected with a laugh.
Jamie and David Griner have three children, sons James, 15, and Jackson, 13, and daughter Jovie, 12. Seven years ago, the family was deeply impacted after a service dog named Angel joined the family to assist Jackson, who has autism.
“She changed Jackson's whole life,” Jamie Griner said. “She healed parts of his heart that even I couldn't get to as his mother and instantly inspired us by what happens when you put animals and children together, especially extra-needs animals and children.”
Shives, who went with her daughter and grandson to pick up Angel, a great Pyrenees, in Wisconsin, said the bond was instantaneous.
“It was amazing to watch them together,” Shives said. “You could physically see the transformation in Jackson.”
After Angel joined their family, the Griners quietly began rescuing animals at their Austin home, where they soon amassed a set of chickens, a pig, several goats and seven dogs. In 2014, they realized they needed a bigger space and purchased 10 acres in Leander.
“David left his firm and we pulled the kids from school and spent the first six months just cleaning and putting up fences. We had no appliances, no walls,” Jamie Griner said. “We spent six months with just a fire pit outside for cooking. It was crazy. Like reality-show crazy.”
Safe in Austin became an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2017 and is now home to more than 120 animals. Despite a loyal and vibrant social media following, Safe in Austin remains primarily self-funded by David's job as a patent attorney. He works from home and shares his office with two rescue dogs, Barney and Texas, who has a digestive disorder called megaesophagus and must be hand-fed in a special chair five times a day.
“It's a zoo. But a lot of the animals that we take in don't have any place else to go,” David Griner said. “If we can't find room for them, they get put down. I think it's an important thing we do here and that we try to teach to the kids and the adults that come out — there is value to the lives of even these creatures. Have empathy toward them. That's what we do.”
It's a rainy and frigid early fall morning, and Jamie Griner is cuddling a tiny white fluff ball of a puppy named Halo. As she holds 6-week-old Halo up for a kiss, it becomes evident that this is not a typical puppy. Halo doesn't have front paws.
“She didn't grow basically this entire section on her front legs,” Jamie Griner said. “A man was breeding dogs, and when she was born without legs he just put her in a box to get rid of her. Lucky for me, his grandson came to visit with his girlfriend, and the girlfriend saw the puppy in a box and put it on social media and I got tagged.”
Jamie Griner has a soft spot for Halo, who is a white great Pyrenees just like Jackson's service dog, Angel, who died a year and a half ago. Halo is being raised at Safe in Austin in part by Duchess, a pit bull mix who Jamie Griner said was bred constantly over a four-year span so her puppies could be used for dogfighting. She was the first dog the family rescued and has become Safe in Austin's mother to the motherless.
“The trauma of having those babies taken away from her too soon over and over again just left her very motherly, so whenever we bring a new rescue to the ranch, we give it to Duchess. It doesn't matter what species it is. She's tried to nurse chicks and rabbits, and I swear she's tried to nurse ponies,” Jamie Griner said. “She's getting old, she's suffering from multiple cancers, but we're not sure what we'd do without her. As soon as a rescue gets here and we give it to her and she claims it as her baby, the rest of the dog pack seems to know Duchess has said they're our family now and they leave them alone.”
Shives, who volunteers at Safe in Austin alongside her husband, Bill, remembers being hesitant about her daughter starting a rescue ranch.
“I'll be honest, I was like, 'You're doing what? You have pit bulls with my grandkids?'” Shives said. “I was concerned until we came out and we met Duchess, and then I was like, 'OK, this is a wonderful thing.'”
A current roll call at Safe in Austin includes two ponies, one horse, nine cats, 17 dogs, three cows, four turkeys, four rabbits, three tortoises, a macaw, six pot-belly pigs, two farm hogs, 31 goats and “lots of chickens and ducks.” Of those, many have personal stories riddled with trauma, abuse, neglect and, ultimately, perseverance.
Like Priscilla, a turkey who was born with a deformity Jamie Griner calls a “lucky hand.”
“She had a deformity in her foot that had all the other turkeys at the turkey farm picking on her, so we brought her here,” Jamie Griner said. “We have friends that visit us that have lucky hands or lucky parts of their own. Priscilla actually loves to snuggle. She'll sit in your lap and close her eyes and lay her head on your shoulder. She'll stay there all day long.”
Then there's Pebo, a military macaw who spent a decade in poor conditions inside a drug-infested home, Jamie Griner said.
“Military macaws have the intelligence of a 3- to 5-year-old child, so his recovery and learning to trust has been a little more intense than the typical animal,” Jamie Griner said. “He's been a real gift to some of the kids that come out here, especially some of my foster kids. They can relate to being in a home that was scary or unkind and having to learn to adjust to a new family and learn to love and find family again.”
Shives said one of the fun parts of life at the ranch is that you never know with which animal a child will bond.
“That's what's nice here. There's such a variety between the cows and ponies and chickens and turkeys and dogs,” Karen Shives said, adding that her personal favorite is Hershel, a longhorn. “I think we have every child covered.”
Three-year-old Ace typically visits his friend Francis and the other animals at Safe in Austin on a monthly basis.
“They might not know they're going through the same situation,” Ruelas said of Francis and Ace, “but they definitely feel that warmth of being together.”
During a recent visit, Ace tripped and fell, and Griner's son, Jackson, quickly came to the rescue, distracting him with a tortoise named Rex.
Before long, Ace was all smiles again, delighting in a baby pig named Mikey that was making himself comfortable in the basket of Ace's walker.
“Look at that,” Ace said. “He likes it in there!”
Ace is quick to tell people he meets that he also has “my own animal!”: Nevins, an 8-month-old golden retriever mix his family adopted from Safe in Austin and may train as Ace's service dog. Although Jamie Griner's intention is to provide a forever home for animals who need it, she also occasionally takes in puppies and adopts them out as appropriate.
“I have never said no to puppies that don't have a mom,” Jamie Griner said.
The most important thing Safe in Austin does, Jamie Griner said, is offering Healing Hearts tours, which are dedicated tours for children with special needs.
“It was placed on my heart from the very beginning that anyone deserves love, whether they can afford it or not. We never charge a fee to anyone that needs healing,” Jamie Griner said. “'Love doesn't cost a thing' is our deal. We run only off donations, which makes my life harder but my heart happy.”
Every Monday from 9 a.m. to noon, Safe in Austin also invites all ages and abilities to come volunteer at the ranch. When Zachary Weldon, who is 21 and has autism, came on a Monday nearly two years ago, his parents were not optimistic.
“They didn't think it was going to go well because he's got sensory processing issues. He didn't really even open-hand touch his dog at home,” Jamie Griner said. “He shocked everybody including his mama when he bent down and kissed Peter the pig on his head. He's come basically every Monday since then.”
On a recent Monday, Weldon, wearing a volunteer shirt that read “I help rescue animals that rescue children,” carefully brushed a horse named Maximus.
Weldon visits, he said, because he likes “helping the animals.” David Griner said Safe in Austin works because animals have no expectations of the children they serve.
“No judgment,” Jamie Griner added. “Unconditional love.”
Because Safe in Austin does not yet have a barn, animals with the most intensive needs are kept in the family's detached rec room. The resident ducks frequently opt to swim in the family pool instead of the on-site pond.
“I have 60 rescued farm animals and no barn, which is why there was a goat in my house and there was a pig in my house. There's always something in my house,” Jamie Griner said. “We don't even have running water. We have to attach hose after hose after hose and carry water to all the pastures.”
Because there is no paid staff and public donations typically do not even cover the cost of food and vet expenses, Jamie Griner has to be selective about the animals she accepts.
“I probably turn down 20 animals a day, which is heartbreaking and awful,” she said. “Who gets to come here has a lot to do with how much I think I can inspire the children who come here.”
She added that while it can be overwhelming to hear so many stories of loss and trauma, watching the animals help heal the children who visit makes it all worth it.
“It's hard not to get a hardened heart,” Jamie Griner said. “Besides the animal stories, on top of that, there's every child's story. (In addition to) horrible abuse and trauma and bullying and sadness, we have a little boy that's dying of heart failure. It's a lot to carry. But every child that leaves here with even a tiny ounce of their heart healed is worth it, every single time.”
14601 Honeycomb Drive in Leander
In addition to Healing Hearts tours for special needs children, Safe in Austin also offers public days, private tours, birthday parties and field trips. Learn more at safeinaustin.org.