Jess Sandoval is the owner of Harley’s Haven Ranch, a non-profit animal rescue named after her first rescue dog and great companion the late Harley. The ranch on the plains east of Colorado Springs is home to dozens of chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, dogs, alpacas and llamas. (Video by Skyler Ballard/ The Gazette)

ELLICOTT • Between kisses from Forrest the goat, Jess Sandoval looks up to a slightly concerning sight.

“Henry, why are you standing like that?” she asks one of the alpacas nearby.

Henry is standing like he might be in distress; a foot looks oddly bent. Sandoval walks toward him. But before she reaches him, he walks along just fine, completely normal. Sandoval sighs in relief.

“They do that, like, 30 times a day,” she says. “And every time, it’s like, Oh my gosh! Are you OK?”

Sandoval wants everyone to be OK at Harley’s Haven Ranch here on the plains east of Colorado Springs. Everyone — the dozen or so goats, the dozen or so alpacas, the more than dozen sheep, the seven pigs, the three llamas, the donkeys she counts on one hand and the chickens she would need many hands to count.

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Jess Sandoval, left, and Audrey Webb, the owner of another ranch just down the road from Sandoval, pet a pair of pigs at Harley’s Haven Ranch. The two veterans are pursuing similar dreams of providing a safe haven for animals and veterans in need.

There are also nine dogs. They are the ones responsible for this first-year nonprofit, which seeks to give a home to livestock in need. One rescue dog in particular sparked the mission: the late Harley, who Sandoval recalls as her “rock and constant” when she needed that most.

Previously at her house in the city, she was fostering dogs.

“And then I decided I wanted some land, because the more dogs I ended up adopting and fostering, the more room I needed,” Sandoval says. “And with the land came everything else.”

And with the 40 acres came a serendipitous friendship.

Ten miles down the road, along came Audrey Webb, a woman with a similar vision for her future, one with animals, and a similar past in the military.

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Jess Sandoval leads a chicken out of an old trailer that has been repurposed as a shelter for chickens and pigs at Harley’s Haven Ranch.

Sandoval had joined the Army back when she was 18, around the same age Webb joined the Air Force. They joined to escape small towns; Sandoval in Northern California, Webb in Missouri. They joined not really knowing what else to do, certainly not knowing what war would be like in the Middle East.

“Turns out we were around the same places around the same time,” Webb says.

Flash forward, they retired with aches and pains that would prove burdensome; Sandoval in her hip, Webb in her knees and back. They retired not really knowing what to do next.

“I literally grew up in the Air Force, that’s all I knew,” Webb says. After 24 years, “I knew nothing. It was a culture shock. I didn’t have military people around me anymore. Anxiety, depression, all of that. But I didn’t know that.”

She didn’t know until she allowed herself quiet introspection. This was what being around horses granted her, she learned. “It allowed me to be calm,” Webb says.

The prairie away from the city allowed this, too. Where the tumbleweeds rolled, it seemed worries could go along with them, out to the big sky.

“People in the military talk about a safe space,” Webb says. “When I took a first look at the land we’re on now, that’s the first time in my life that was my safe space.”

Lo and behold, there was someone nearby whose journey was strikingly similar. Someone who found similar relief here and identified a similar mission going forward. “Call it luck or God,” Webb says.

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Jess Sandoval holds a piglet at her ranch east of Colorado Springs. The piglet is one of seven pigs on the property that’s also full of dozens of chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, alpacas and llamas.

Whatever you call it, she and Sandoval are here now for animals. Their purpose is clear as ever: “Trying to benefit their lives and giving them as much safety and security and happiness as possible,” Sandoval says.

The women connected as people tend to do here on the big plain that feels much smaller once you move to it: through word of mouth or Facebook.

Webb needed help with a llama, and Sandoval came. Later, Sandoval needed help picking up animals whose owners were parting with them — situations she learns about through word of mouth or Facebook of course — and Webb came.

Whether it’s a fence that needs fixing, a shelter that needs building or more animals that need saving, the two have dropped everything for each other with little to no notice. That’s been despite whatever pain they might be feeling from their past lives.

“It’s a veteran thing, it’s a woman thing — you just do,” Webb says. “You know it has to be done for the animals.”

Not long ago, they hurried to Black Forest to take a couple of donkeys and a bunch of alpacas whose owners were separating and leaving the land. Another time, they drove south to Florence, where they picked up two other alpacas, Ruby and Judy, who had been squeezed into a minivan.

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Forest the goat stands on the fence and gives kisses to Jess Sandoval on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023. Forest was rescued as a baby and bottle fed by Sandoval when he first arrived at the ranch. (Parker Seibold, The Gazette)

Often, people in the city realize they don’t want hens after they stop laying eggs after two or three years. Sandoval happily takes those calls. For all calls, she requests some feed and a donation to Harley’s Haven Ranch.

She also occasionally makes requests on Facebook, where she might post a sad story. One about a pony, for instance, who came to the ranch with hooves that had been long ignored, along with a nasty injury on her hide. Sandoval posted her hope to “help this girl see thru the injustice humans have done to her so she can one day be pain and fear free.”

But most of the posts are happy. They are greetings from Barney and Magic, the friendly roosters. Greetings from Laverne and Shirley the llamas, who look very much alike, “but Laverne has the fluffier nose and bigger personality,” Sandoval wrote.

Here are Betty and Blanche the sheep, happily basking in the sun. Here are piglets “thinking they can help with the new fence.” Here’s Sam the donkey, a new rescue. “Welcome to the ranch handsome boy!”

The ranch maintains the spirit of its namesake, Sandoval likes to think. She took care of Harley the dog, but actually, she says, Harley took care of her in life after the Army.

“It was very difficult,” Sandoval says. “You have a routine every single day (in the military), you have a purpose. I was looking for my purpose.”

Sandoval had been on the move a lot during her service, and she remained so as a civilian. “I had gone through a divorce, I had moved across the country, different relationships with friends and family,” she says. “But Harley was always by my side.”

He was always there in the passenger seat. Always there to listen. Always there for warmth on cold nights.

He died two years ago. Sandoval felt alone — but not for long.

Along came the land and everything else. Along came Webb. “We are each other’s backbone now,” Sandoval says.

Now Webb has been thinking of starting her own nonprofit down the road. Rockin’ Vets Ranch, she’s thinking. “Rescuing animals and a place for veterans to decompress,” Webb says.

To feel what she and her new friend have felt.

With the animals, “everything disappears,” Sandoval says. “Everything goes calm.”

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