In the early 1990s, Tracy Frank was working with autistic children and living in an Austin subdivision with a dozen dogs and several cats, all of which were rescued or adopted. Having that many animals wasn’t suitable — or practical — in that neighborhood, so Frank moved out to her family’s ranch, where she and the animals would have more space. Frank had always been the type of person who rescued animals by the roadside, and her new living environment only fostered that tendency. Not surprisingly, her menagerie grew larger. As word spread about the woman who took in strays, people started leaving animals — sometimes entire newborn litters — at her doorstep. Her friends teased her about having an animal shelter. She bristled at the idea. To her, animal shelters were crowded, cold facilities where animals were on death row. “No-kill shelters were not as prevalent back then, and I didn’t agree with the idea of killing one animal to make room for another one,” she says. “I’ve been a vegetarian for years. When you’re around animals all the time, it’s hard to eat them.”
Ironic, Frank says, because she grew up in a cattle-ranching family that spent a lot of time fishing and hunting. “When I was growing up, everything in our lives involved killing something,” she says. But on the flip side, she always rooted for the runt of the litter. “I always wanted to take care of the animal nobody else cared about,” she says. “The more pathetic the situation, the more stubborn I got.”
A FORK IN THE ROAD
She soon found herself growing less satisfied with her “day job.” At a personal and professional crossroads, Frank was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, reading a magazine article about an animal shelter in Utah. “A light went off,” says Frank. “I realized that I was doing the same thing.” She decided to leave her job and commit herself full time to caring for unwanted animals. Focused on her new path, but unsure where to begin and unable to afford an attorney, she contacted the Utah shelter she’d read about in the magazine. The organization pointed her to a number of resources to help her structure her operation as an incorporated, nonprofit entity. From there, Frank says, she just put one foot in front of the other and kept taking the next logical step. Today, her Southern Animal Rescue Association is home to more than 800 animals on nearly 400 acres near Seguin. Caring for a mix of abandoned pets, discarded factory farm animals and assorted foundlings and unexplained arrivals, Frank lives in an old barn with her husband, Sam Nokes. Dogs and cats live in their respective packs and colonies with access to air conditioning.
Near her desk, the chirping of baby cardinals reminds her that it’s time for their feeding by dropper. “A family of feral pigs just showed up here one day,” she laughs. “I guess they just knew they could find a home here.”
LIVING ON DOG TIME
Frank lives on “dog time,” rising at 3 a.m. for the first round of feedings. “They’re rambunctious until they get fed,” she says. “It’s worse if the weather is bad.” She returns for a nap, then, as day breaks, it’s back to the animals for medication rounds. Her small staff and some volunteers arrive, but if she’s short-handed, she makes the feeding rounds with the cats, moving on to pick up manure and put out fresh water. Most days, Frank has to steal a little office time to attend to the business of running the operation, check phone messages and read the never-ending stream of e-mail coming in to the organization’s Web site,www.sarasanctuary.org. Not long after she started SARA, Frank got the attention of the San Antonio Express-News, which ran an article about the sanctuary. “I remember getting the first $500 donation after that article and how grateful I was for the support,” she says. After that publicity, animal drop-offs increased as more people saw her operation as an alternative to the already-full local shelters, but financial support didn’t keep up at the same pace. She admits that she was naïve in the beginning. Based on the Utah sanctuary that inspired her, she thought SARA would attract substantial cash donations on the same scale. With reality offering less than the dream, Frank bolsters her small staff with volunteers, and she’s developed creative alliances in order to get essential items — such as food, animal care and veterinary products — either donated or discounted from area retailers and clinics. She is constantly confronted with the realities of caring for hurt and unwanted animals. She’s had to accept that she can’t say yes to everyone who asks her for help, but inner conflict rises each and every time. “I’ve been told that I have to treat this like a business,” she says. “I don’t want to get to the point where there are too many animals for us to care for, but who else is going to take these animals?” Frank finds it hard to turn away animals that she knows will have a worse time of it if she says no. One dog arrived with a chain around its neck and a mean streak that kept people at bay. She took the dog to the vet, who assumed that she wanted the dog put to sleep. “No, I want you to neuter him,” she said. Over time, she watched the dog’s transformation. “It was amazing to see that dog change from this vicious, abused animal into a happy, trusting dog who’s at peace with where he is today,” she says.
Though some of the animals will be happiest living out their lives at the sanctuary, Frank says that most of the animals — particularly the dogs and cats — are adoptable. “There just aren’t enough homes for them all, which is why I’m here,” she says.
Again, when conflict arises, she gets creative. Sometimes it works. She got a call one day, asking Frank to take their dog. The dog was too protective of the caller’s family, and the vet recommended putting the dog to sleep. She thought quickly and asked, “If we take your dog, would you consider taking two of our dogs here in exchange?” The family agreed. “It worked beautifully,” says Frank. “Daisy is fine here, and the two dogs the family took in exchange have a great life.” Other times, things aren’t so simple, and SARA isn’t without controversy. “Not everyone agrees with the sanctuary concept, where animals are allowed to live out their lives,” she says. Critics refer to the no-kill environment as “warehousing.” Frank defends the operation: “If we killed 500 dogs to make room for 500 more, what would that accomplish? Every life is worth something.” She points to a dog named Christy, who has never been able to walk. When he arrived, the local Animal Control authorities pressed Frank to have him euthanized, but she refused. “With my background working with disabled people, I knew we could work with him,” she says. Fast-forward 10 years, and Christy is still a fixture at the sanctuary. “He needs extra assistance because he can’t walk, and he sleeps in a crib,” she says. “He’s just the greatest dog. If you don’t know him, you’d think it’s sad, but he has a great life.”
Frank says she’s constantly coming up with new ideas to capture the interest of supporters, as well as current and potential volunteers. One idea that’s bearing fruit is the “volunteer vacation,” where travelers choose a destination based on the opportunity to spend the time volunteering for an organization that supports their interests. Frank promotes a volunteer alternative to Spring Break beach partying through colleges and universities, and she’s hosted people from other countries looking for a chance to volunteer during their vacation. “There’s this trend with people — especially students and young adults — who want to combine travel with opportunities to do good things, to do something that’s bigger than themselves,” she says. Today, Frank finds herself at another crossroads. With the land surrounding the sanctuary being subdivided and developed, the area is no longer a practical location for an animal sanctuary. She’s made peace with the idea that it’s time to move to larger, if not greener, pastures, and she and her husband are currently weighing their options. “I don’t think we’ll be doing anything any time soon, but I remember when there were hardly any people out here, and that’s changed, so we have to be ready to move on. I have no idea how we’ll move all of these animals to a new sanctuary,” she laughs, “but we’ll figure it out.”
Looking back, Frank realizes that as a younger woman, she was looking for something meaningful to ground her, and she says the sanctuary has given her what she needed most. “I’m so grateful that the sanctuary has supported itself for 11 years,” she says. “On its hardest days, I wouldn’t trade it. We’ve come so far, and I’m so proud of the good things we’ve accomplished. Nothing gives me greater fulfillment.
“I was a different person when I was younger,” she says. “I’m not perfect, but I’ve learned that what matters in life is that I’m doing something good. My heroes are the people who do things that are bigger than themselves.”
Author: Susan Sheffloe Speer
Photographer: Liz Garza Williams