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A Virginia woman opened sanctuary for elderly border collies in Gloucester County. Then her neighbors sued.
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A Virginia woman opened sanctuary for elderly border collies in Gloucester County. Then her neighbors sued.

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Lillie Goodrich of Gloucester devotes her life for Border Collie rescue & sanctuary.

Most of the dogs are old and most are ailing, some with a dire combination of diseases and diagnoses that leave them not long for this world.

But these border collies at Glen Highland all have at least one thing in common: They had nowhere to go and no one to care for them until Lillie Goodrich gave them a home.

Goodrich has transformed her 20 acres in Gloucester County, between the North and Ware rivers, near where they meet at Mobjack Bay, into a sanctuary for border collies, most of whom will live out their last months or years here.

“I’m just here to have a bunch of old dogs have a nice life,” she said.

Goodrich, 65, moved to Virginia in late 2019, having already spent almost two decades caring for border collies in need. She and her husband, John Andersen, operated a large rescue in upstate New York for up to 60 dogs at a time, many of whom were adopted.

But this place is not that.

They decided to move to a warmer climate and scale down the operation, focusing on the sanctuary part of their mission and only the most fragile dogs that are generally not adoptable.

She currently has 20 dogs and cannot envision having more than 25 at a time. The dogs live in one of two houses — hers or her caretaker’s — sitting on the couch, watching TV.

“These dogs are real family,” Goodrich said.

When Goodrich and Andersen acquired the Gloucester property in January 2019, they thought they had landed in the perfect spot.

However, the past two years have been anything but perfect.

Andersen was diagnosed with cancer a few months after their arrival in Virginia, and he died in April 2020. Then there was the pandemic. On top of everything else was an unexpected, drawn-out legal battle over the sanctuary’s mere existence that went all the way to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Before purchasing the property, Goodrich and Andersen went through an extensive zoning review with the county, which approved their plans. But three neighbors appealed the county’s decision, claiming the operation should be considered a kennel, which would require a special exception. (By the time the case ran its course, only one of the neighbors was still involved.) They appealed first to the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals, then to circuit court and ultimately to the state Supreme Court. The Supreme Court denied a neighbor’s request for a rehearing in late June.

The neighbors’ case was against the county, not Glen Highland Farm, but Goodrich employed legal counsel just the same, an expensive proposition for any organization, let alone a nonprofit dog sanctuary that spends thousands of dollars on medical care for its residents. However, Goodrich managed because of a supportive board and generous donors.

Now, she can launch fundraising efforts, which had been stalled during the legal wrangling, and she can get on with caring for her dogs.

“We’re really relieved,” she said.

***

As a child, Goodrich says, she was a “nerdy dog kid.”

Her fascination led her to study books about dogs; she knew different breeds and the shapes of their ears and tails. She always wanted to “help a lot of dogs,” but she lived in cities, and traveled the world as an advertising and television executive, a high-pressure, fast-paced lifestyle she loved, but not one that lent itself to having a dog.

She finally reached the point where she determined she needed a break.

She and Andersen, a business executive who also traveled a lot, settled in a place where they could have a dog.

How did she come to concentrate on border collies, a highly intelligent, highly energetic breed known for herding livestock? The dogs require physical and mental stimulation and don’t necessarily make the best house pets because of their type-A personalities. Her husband told Goodrich she was like a border collie, she recalled: “super obsessed, extremely driven, very focused, tons of energy.”

“I was, like, oh, really?” she said with a laugh.

Was he wrong?

“No, no, he called it.”

They adopted a young border collie named Luke who had been miscast as a city dog and was a growling, snarling, terrified mess. A few months after getting him out of New York City and into a home where he could run and roam and be himself, he was a “normal dog,” Goodrich said.

“We fell in love with him,” she said, “and BOOM! Off to rescue we were.” That was 2001.

Border collies have grown in popularity over the years, which increased demand not always with a thorough understanding of the needs of a working dog, Goodrich said. Border collies sometimes wind up in homes ill-equipped for high-energy dogs, which can leave their people exasperated when the animals start chasing cars, nipping kids and generally running amok — not to mention their fear of being in a setting that doesn’t suit them. When those people changed their minds, rescues flourished.

Over the years, more than 3,000 of the dogs Goodrich and Andersen took in were adopted into more suitable situations. A decade ago, they added the sanctuary aspect to their operation for the oldest and sickest dogs that would never be adopted. With more border collie rescue operations available, Goodrich and Andersen decided to sell their New York farm, come south and focus solely on the sanctuary.

“I just feel compelled to help those who need the most, and these senior dogs are truly forgotten because they’re expensive ... and rescues have a hard time finding places for them,” Goodrich said, noting she takes each new dog for a round of blood work and diagnostic tests, such as ultrasounds, that can run $2,000 apiece.

******

In New York, they tended to receive dogs whose people had died or had become unable to care for them for one reason or another. Since coming to Virginia, Goodrich said, she’s seeing more dogs that are strays and have been poorly or never cared for, which means they arrive with health problems that often are myriad and extreme.

She’s taken in dogs from around Virginia and other nearby (and not so nearby) states. They come with heart ailments and liver disease, skin allergies and metastasized cancer. They have mobility issues — X-rays show at least one was probably hit by a car — and neurological problems.

For the most complex cases, Goodrich takes them for specialized care in Richmond or to the North Carolina State University Vet Center. Add in medications for many of the dogs, and the costs of care can be exorbitant.

“I really think that sets her above and beyond most rescues because a lot of rescues don’t have the resources to do that,” said Dr. Danielle Verderame, owner of the Animal Care of Gloucester veterinary hospital where Goodrich has been taking her dogs since she arrived in Virginia.

“She’s not afraid to take on really sick animals. I’ve been pretty impressed with how far she’ll go to help them,” Verderame said. “For a rescue, I can’t say enough good things.”

One of Goodrich’s dogs came from the Middlesex County Animal Shelter.

“This poor dog has numerous medical issues which we had just started investigating when Lillie took him in,” Ruth Williams, the shelter manager, wrote in an email. “Jude is now getting all the medical care he needs as well as living in a wonderful foster environment.”

Some of the border collies enjoy getting out and running; others, though, have been slowed by age and ailments, and not only can no longer run but also need to be carried up steps or lifted into cars. For those in the worst shape, Goodrich simply tries to keep them comfortable. Speaking of one in such a predicament, she said her goal is to “make sure she has a great few months, make sure she’s pain-free and love her to death.”

In a literal sense.

Death is an inevitable — and frequent — occurrence at Glen Highland.

“I think the greatest gift anyone ... could give to a dog is a graceful exit,” Goodrich said, though “graceful” does not negate how emotionally hard this kind of work can be for Goodrich and Glen Highland senior caretaker Joycelene Padilla. “Rather than a tragic exit — alone, unknown, unloved, not understood — we’re giving them months or maybe a year or maybe two years of something superb. We want to give them the best health we can, even though it’s limited, and great joy to be the border collie they are.

“If they need to play a little ball right in front of their face because they can’t really see very well, or they want to do a little walk, just moving around the property because that’s who they are, they’re physical dogs. You can see the light in their eyes. At the time the light dims and it’s time to let them go, it’s very fulfilling to have given them something they couldn’t have had very easily any other way. It’s hard. It’s hard because they all do die, but there’s the next one that comes. You get up and you say, here’s another one that needs your help. It’s a graceful experience.”

The past 20 years proved a “strange turn” for someone who spent so many years in television, working with the likes of David Letterman and Oprah Winfrey among many others, and leading projects for Fortune 500 companies. She recalls the moment when she knew she had to step away.

“I was really exhausted and needed a break,” she said with a laugh, “and I picked something even harder.”

Her job now is all-consuming. Every day, 24/7, working without a backup or a net. Getting everyone fed, including hand-feeding some with dental shortcomings, and providing attention at all hours, sometimes at the expense of sleep, to those that need it most.

“It makes television look easy,” she said. “It’s life and death. I’m running a MASH unit. That’s what I’m doing.”

On the other hand, she’s convinced she’s doing what she was meant to do. After being “sideswiped” by so many things since coming to Virginia, she says, “I’m coming back strong, to do the best work I can before I hit the dirt.”

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