Liz Keller, the founder and head of upstate New York’s Glen Wild Animal Rescue, a non-profit safe haven for animals and participating organization of the Mayor’s Alliance for NYC’s Animals, has dedicated her entire professional career to helping improve the lives of companion animals, especially dogs. She has extensive experience in dog grooming, handling, and training; as an animal control officer; and as a manager of both private boarding kennels and New York-run shelter facilities.
She uses all those experiences every day on behalf of Glen Wild. Originally founded in 1999, today the no-kill shelter can provide a home for about 60 dogs at a time. Some of the dogs will eventually be adopted, while others will live out their lives at Glen Wild under Keller’s loving care. A small number of semi-feral cats also roam the grounds. Many of the dogs come from the three Animal Care & Control of NYC (AC&C) shelters, where animals are at risk of being euthanized for lack of space or for perceived behavioral issues. Keller also takes in dogs from local and neighboring rescue groups that need a little extra training, kindness, and attention. She not only uses her own years of training but also relies on her strong intuitive sense about individual animals to help identify a “diamond in the ruff” that deserves a second chance at life.One shining example is Wheeler, a German Shepherd who was found wandering the streets of Brooklyn and was sent to a city shelter. When Keller first met Wheeler she was told the dog was nipping people and had some other behavioral problems. Keller knew from her days as a groomer that many Shepherds do not enjoy being touched and might respond by nipping. She also noticed that the dog had a very high play drive. She correctly intuited that what the stray really needed was the opportunity to channel all that energy into a job. Today Wheeler, named for a police officer killed in the line of duty, is a seasoned veteran of the police force in Binghamton, NY. He uses his signature Shepherd snout to sniff out drugs and detect dead bodies and has played an important role in solving many crimes.
Wheeler’s story is just one example of why Keller has always advocated that shelter workers and others not rush to judgment about an animal’s capabilities based solely on the behaviors he or she may be exhibiting in any given moment. She urges that shelter workers who do behavior assessments take their time and factor in any breed characteristics and individual animal histories they can. And it’s also important, she maintains, that they take into consideration that some behaviors may be caused or exaggerated by an animal finding itself in a shelter environment with unfamiliar sights, smells, sounds, and other animals.
Keller is convinced that there are a lot of cats and dogs like Wheeler in shelters. Over the years, she has rescued many, including Shayla, another German Shepherd. Shayla is currently in training to work with New York State troopers. “There’s so much going on with these animals,” Keller says. “We have to figure out how to help them.”
Keller feels this way not only about animals, but about New York’s youth as well. She has initiated a number of programs that give young people a chance to change the path of their lives by interacting with shelter dogs.At the Youth Leadership Academy, a juvenile detention center located in South Kortright, NY, teen boys can apply to participate in a program to train one of Glen Wild’s rescue dogs. Keller and her staff travel with selected dogs to the facility where teens learn clicker-training techniques and teach the dogs basic commands. The program provides enrichment for the dogs and helps many of them get ready for adoption. As for the teens, they get to develop their self-esteem and change their perceptions about their futures. And they respond to the unconditional love they receive from the dogs by giving it right back. Keller also provides the teens with humane education information about dog fighting and other relevant companion animal issues. Seventy-five boys participated in the inaugural program in 2008, and a record 150 dogs were adopted in one year. One boy was so profoundly affected by his experience in the program that upon release from the center, he started a dog boarding business with his father.
Keller has also started a “Paws ‘n’ Pals” letter-writing program for middle-school girls participating in a New York City after-school program called Unleashed. Founded by Dr. Stacy Radin, Unleashed is designed to power the potential in girls to be agents for change by involving them in all aspects of puppy rescue. Keller sends pictures and brief bios of Glen Wild’s dogs to the Unleashed girls who each select a “paw pal” and begin writing.
Keller and her staff read each letter to the dog it was written to and then respond for the dog to each girl. The girls find their voices and gain self-confidence as they share their hopes and dreams and also send words of encouragement to the dogs, some of whom were victims of abuse. At the end of the school year the girls travel to Glen Wild, armed with treats and toys, which they present to their paw pals.Each dog recognizes his or her girl immediately, having picked up their scent from their letters. During one visit, Lily, a dog who normally avoids contact with most people due to her past experiences, reached through a fence to give her paw pal a lick. It may seem like a simple gesture, but, according to Keller, that was the first time Lily ever responded positively to a stranger.
Keller isn’t one to rest on her laurels. She has recently started a program to train rescue dogs to assist wounded war veterans. The first dog, Collins, named for a solider killed in Afghanistan, will soon be ready to be matched with a returning solider in need.
Keller will shortly move Glen Wild from its current space in North Branch to a donated property in Cherry Valley. Keller calls the new, permanent space a “blessing.” And the rescue dogs and cats that will move with her undoubtedly understand the meaning of that word too.
About the Author
Thea Feldman is a lifelong animal lover, who is also a writer and editor. She has written many articles about animals and more than 100 books for children. She lives in New York with her favorite companion animal, Zoe Louise.