Words by LM Johnson
Photography by Layth Taylor
Amore is living up to his name.
He grins and wiggles gleefully as I scratch his ears, then makes a sly attempt to nibble my hat, which is taking up the place on my lap that he would like to occupy. My host laughs as she comes to the rescue of my headgear. “Now doesn’t that look like a normal dog to you? He doesn’t know that there’s anything wrong with him. He’s as happy as he can be.”
But there is something wrong—or at least different. Amore is an almost white Australian Shepherd, born permanently blind and deaf. His owner and caregiver, Sandi Walker, explains, “He’s a double merle. You should never breed merle to merle in any breed, but people do it, and this is what can happen.”
The demand for lame, halt, and crippled animals is no greater than it is for humans. But for a dog like Amore, there is an option. This is Second Chance Farm, and its mission statement is both a challenge and an admonition: “Let’s Redefine Normal.”
A few miles west of Granbury, down a series of narrow roads that snake away from 377 south into the cedar, the seventy acres of what was once a family farm is the refuge and in many cases permanent home of a varying number of animals who have found a welcome they would likely have found nowhere else. At any given time, there are as many as a hundred assorted creatures—horses, donkeys, pigs, sheep, cattle, birds, the occasional cat, and many, many dogs—enjoying lives that in most cases would have ended long ago for the sake of human convenience, or out of misguided compassion.
But twenty years ago, owner Sandi Walker had an epiphany. “I had a horse that went blind so I put him with a crippled cow. Then I put a bell around the cow’s neck so the horse could hear her. So my horse got a seeing eye cow. And that worked out.” The farm that she shared with her now 91-year-old mother became Second Chance Farm, a place dedicated to making the seemingly impossible animal rescues that almost no one else would consider, let alone attempt.
The mission statement for Second Chance Farm is both a challenge and an admonition: “Let’s Redefine Normal.”
Second Chance is a comfortably sprawling place, with large dog pens interspersed with pasture land. Each pen is graced with what appears to be a Hobbit house– a small, tidy, air conditioned and heated shed that typically shelters two residents, each with his or her own space and bed. There is a comfortable looking hen house for a small flock of once homeless chickens, a tank where assorted ducks paddle and preen, including one recent refugee from our storm-ravaged Gulf coast. A golf cart makes getting around easier, and as we roll past the various enclosures, an entourage of teasing, cheerful dogs trots beside us as Sandi greets the residents by name.
Everyone here has a backstory. Blossom the pig, a massive black and white sow who eyes us at the sound of her name but does not rise from the comfy shade of her sty, probably spent her earlier life as an ag project, a situation that commonly ends as expensive pork chops. The same is likely true of Leonard, a young Jersey steer who shares his paddock with Lopez, a massive and placid Brangus who began his life as a bottle fed orphan calf, and Wilber, a blind Hereford/Jersey mix. Junior the donkey was born with a cleft palate that marked him for euthanasia. His BFF is Jazzy, a pretty paint mare. Sandi laughs as we pass them, observing, “Doesn’t matter what you look like. You can still have a hot chick.”
Over the years, there have been many memorable cases, often courtesy of Hood County Animal Control. Demo, a Catahoula/beagle mix, was hit about a year and a half ago by a truck pulling a trailer on Pearl Street in Granbury. The truck kept going, and when Animal Control arrived, there seemed only one option for a dog with a shattered pelvis, hind legs all but flattened, horrific road rash, and a jaw so broken that it hung loose down his throat. Sandi recalls, “They had him on the table and were about to put him down, and then he wagged his tail. So they called me.”
Between Sandi and the several DVMs she keeps on speed dial, Demo survived and now makes it happily and handily on three legs and minus a lower lip, scarred but unbowed. He has plenty of canine company, like Forest, a big mixed breed who, if human, would probably register well up on the autism scale. Sandi explains, “He won’t attack humans, but he goes after inanimate objects. And he can’t handle any change in his routine—the food bowl has to be just were he’s used to finding it.” And Willow, a seven-year-old white Great Dane whose owners gave her up fearing harm to a new baby. She is another product of careless breeding, congenitally blind and deaf, but like all the animals here sleek, healthy, and happy.
The time, money, and logistics involved in running an operation like this are always a challenge. Initially, a business degree from Tarleton made Sandi a businesswoman. “I did nails for twenty years—owned a nail salon and beauty supply store. Then I opened a tanning salon—still have it. And that’s how I funded this place. Now I’ve gotten us our 501(C)3. We’re 100% donation funded. My two businesses pay my personal bills.”
But as much as it matters, money is no substitute for hands on deck. Three volunteers and a part time employee help keep up with the daily and infinite details of life on this very unique farm. And then there’s the cyber approach to supporting a cause. “We’ve got 17,000 followers on Facebook, and they’re all over the world.”
Facebook came to the rescue when Sonora, a blind, pregnant mare, had to be transported from Oklahoma. “Within minutes of posting, I had $600 in donations to cover getting her here. She gave birth two weeks later, and I filmed and posted it, and people were just blown away, they’d never seen that before.” Sonora’s daughter, Starla, now serves as her mother’s guide, to the delight of many. “People laugh with us and cry with us.”
The many permanent residents of Second Chance share their home with a rotating cast of guests. Ten dogs came as hurricane refugees, five of which have since been returned to their owners. And adoptions do take place; a deaf couple in Waco applied to adopt a deaf dog, and wound up taking two.
But the needs of the animals receive first consideration. Sandi introduces me to a tiny, shy, very pregnant dachshund who is one of the remaining storm dogs. “If her owners ask, I have to give her back. But I hope they don’t ask. She’s heartworm positive, and she’s been bred over and over because her owners want to make money off her. I’d like to keep her here.”
There is always another need and another success and another possibility. Inside the front gate, a building has just been added to serve as an onsite rehab cabin. Next to the main house, a donated school bus awaits its resurrection. “It would be so cool. We could do adoption events, meet and greets, and loan it out for emergencies. I just need a mechanic to get it running and someone to do the remodeling.” Donations have lately put a Tommy lift on the back of the van that made the run to Rockport in the wake of Harvey, making it much easier to load up large animals. It would be nice to find a grant writer willing to donate their services. The $13,000 just raised on North Texas Giving Day will go quickly; every three weeks, a ton of horse feed is needed at $850.00 a ton.
But there are no complaints here. In the distance, Comanche Peak stands against the late summer sky and Sandi glances at it, remarking of her overwhelmingly contented charges, “They don’t all come here this way, but they get gentle. I wonder if this isn’t like a sacred place.” She adds, “We’re not a tourist attraction, we’re a home. And we’re not out there for money. But I’m rich at heart from the smiles I get from animals—they’re just happy, happy, happy.”