On a warm autumn day, cows lounge in the sunshine, and pigs squabble over pumpkin pieces. They are the vanguard of creatures, both companion animals and farmed animals, that Brother Wolf Animal Rescue hopes will reside at its new sanctuary in Leicester once it’s fully up and running. Halfway through what the organization is calling its transition year, grand plans and fundraising continue at BWAR, while some in the community question what they see as a realignment of the nonprofit’s mission.
Dream on a hill
Denise Bitz, who founded Brother Wolf 10 years ago, says the development of 82.5 acres of hillside pasture land in Leicester into an animal sanctuary is going well, although the process takes patience. “Things are slow, unfortunately,” she says. “You always want things to move quicker than they do.”
Brother Wolf plans to move its no-kill animal rescue operation from its building on Glendale Avenue in Asheville to the sanctuary, where it envisions dog and cat villages for adoptable and rehabilitating pets, a learning center, guest cabins, a memorial garden, hiking trails and facilities for farmed animals. Plans for the sanctuary were first announced in 2015, and in June 2017 the nonprofit said it would close its Glendale adoption center within a year and shift everything out to the Leicester property.
Six months later, preparations are underway for the first building to go up at the sanctuary, a medical clinic that Bitz expects to be delivered to the property by Deltec Homes in January. Brother Wolf has been advertising for a staff veterinarian for the medical clinic, which Bitz says is a big step. “Right now we spend anywhere from $30,000 to $60,000 a month on vet bills depending on the animal load that we have,” she explains. “By building our own clinic, we feel that we’re going to be able to bring most of those costs in-house and really reduce our expenses.”
While the medical clinic is the first wave of construction at the sanctuary, Bitz does not refer to the process as occurring in phases. “We’re calling this our transition year,” she says. “What we’re hoping to do is to be able to move our current operations from our adoption center out to the sanctuary by next summer.”
The strategy for the move is to build as quickly as funding comes in and to focus on the facilities that will be vital to operations, such as housing for dogs and cats. “I think that we are on track and as long as things keep going at the rate that they’re going, we should be able and ready to move sometime between June and August of 2018,” Bitz says.
As of early December, the sanctuary website shows 51 percent of the funding goal raised, or about $2.55 million of $5 million. Bitz says that amount reflects donations received, pledges made but not yet received, and $500,000 donated to purchase the property. “I think as we begin to really build out there and people are able to see it come to fruition, that there will be even more people wanting to donate,” she says.
Brother Wolf has applied for some grants to help raise capital for the sanctuary, but Bitz is not counting on that source of funding. “We’re definitely hoping for grants, but we know that we’ll probably rely solely on individual and business donations,” she says.
The sanctuary will allow better living conditions for animals than the “warehouse” setup at the Glendale adoption center, Bitz says. “Right now the animals that we’re seeing are the ones that need long-term rehabilitation, and they come in to the adoption center and sometimes they get worse instead of improve because of the environment,” she says. “We’re really happy that the sanctuary will give these specific animals an opportunity to rehabilitate more quickly and to do so in a much more tranquil environment.”
Adoption center on the market
As it pivots to the sanctuary, Bitz says BWAR’s adoption center on Glendale Avenue is “very much open and running.” “We’re fully functioning; every single animal habitat is full,” she says.
Bitz says Brother Wolf is still rescuing new animals and accepting intakes of pets, while trying to avoid taking in large, behaviorally challenged dogs that require long-term care. “Our intakes are pretty much the same as they’ve always been,” she says. “We’re trying to just be a little more selective about not taking sanctuary candidates until the sanctuary’s open.”
The building that houses Brother Wolf’s 9,600-square-foot adoption center on Glendale Avenue in Asheville has been on the market for a few months, and its asking price recently dropped from $910,000 to $870,000. “We have had one official offer to purchase and we declined it because it was lowball and we are not in a rush,” Bitz says.
Bitz adds that this far into the transition year, the organization would only accept an offer to purchase the Glendale space if the adoption center could stay until the sanctuary is ready, “because there’s no point in us trying to find a transitional facility at this point.”
Opinions of different stripes
Brother Wolf’s closure of the Glendale location has not been unanimously applauded. Some were taken off guard by the decision when it was announced in June, Jenna Yarosh, owner of Patton Avenue Pet Co., told Xpress at the time. “The community, including those who worked, donated or volunteered with Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in the last few months [before the announcement], were not aware that the shelter was due to be closed and sold, and the announcement came as a shock to almost everybody involved,” she said.
Rick Wilson, who was Brother Wolf board president from 2010-13, was concerned that the Glendale closure would result in mass layoffs. “From a business standpoint, it makes no sense to me to put that building on the market, close the facility down for supposedly a year, eliminate all the employees,” he told Xpress shortly after the announcement.
Bitz says that depiction of the situation was incorrect. “One person was laid off in the whole organization, and it was our events director … and she was laid off because we tried doing major events here for, well, as long as we’ve been in existence, and what we’ve found is that they don’t make a lot of money,” she says.
While Bitz maintains that only one person has been laid off from Brother Wolf in recent months, she says other people have left of their own accord. “I don’t blame them; some people left just because they were worried about the transition. They have families to feed and they were afraid of being laid off,” she says, adding that those employees will largely be eligible for rehire when the sanctuary opens.
Flo Klein, who resigned from her position as foster care manager for Brother Wolf in April 2017, claims a number of people providing foster care for shelter pets were dismissed earlier this year when they disagreed with the direction the nonprofit was going. During her five-year tenure as manager she only let go two foster individuals, but starting around February 2017, the organization “just started firing foster parents left and right, not even talking to me about them, just saying they don’t exemplify values of Brother Wolf,” Klein says.
Bitz maintains there has been no mass firing of fosters or volunteers, but some have parted ways. “Just like staff that we outgrow, sometimes you outgrow your fosters and your volunteers, and it’s time for them to move on,” she says.
After the group announced it would transition from the Glendale adoption center to the Leicester sanctuary, a number of pet rescue advocates engaged in contentious exchanges about Brother Wolf on Facebook and Reddit and in the online comments sections of stories in Xpress. Complaints and allegations surfaced on a wide range of issues, including the financial health of the organization, its commitment to veganism, departures of staff and foster parents, and the process of how certain animals were or weren’t rescued.
As she tries to quell what she sees as unfounded rumors about what’s happening during the transition year, Bitz says the naysayers are “a small group of disgruntled former fosters who were unhappy that we have a vegan policy now.” “They were unhappy that we are rescuing farm animals and that we don’t serve animals [as food] at any of our events,” she says. “They are trying to create some drama that’s not there.”
An ‘every-animal place’
Brother Wolf education outreach manager Laura Trentman tells a story of a little boy who came to the sanctuary and visited the cows that reside on the property. He asked, “Miss Laura, is this an every animal place?” Trentman turned that phrase into a hashtag for the sanctuary. “The point is to have ambassadors of every animal out here,” she says while giving a tour of the Leicester property. “And I just think it’s really cool that these guys get to stay in their home.”
The sanctuary will feature only a small group of representatives from each species of farmed animal — cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys, goats, sheep and ducks — that will be used for educational purposes. “We’re not going to be in the business of doing farm animal rescue, because it’s a waste of time and money,” Bitz says.
Bitz says organizations trying to raise awareness of the plight of farmed animals are better off putting their resources into education rather than fighting a losing battle of trying to rescue the “trillions” of animals that are killed each year for food. “We feel like we could meet our mission for farmed animals, which is to really get people to see that they’re really no different than the dogs and cats we share our homes with,” she says. “And we could do that with five pigs — we don’t need 500 pigs.”
Already, seven cows roam the sanctuary’s highest hills, and hogs and pot-bellied pigs root around in pens closer to North Turkey Creek Road. Bitz says some of the pigs were brought in by a family that bought them from a roadside stand in order to save them from slaughter. “We get requests pretty much every week to take animals from somewhere,” Bitz says. “It just depends if their case aligns with our mission. So if a farm animal has a really good story that will help us educate people and impact the way they feel about farm animals, then we would consider taking that.”
Dogs and cats will also get new digs at the sanctuary, Bitz says, including custom-designed housing for special needs dogs. “Because many dogs that will be housed at the sanctuary have severe behavior problems, they will need to be housed alone,” Bitz says. She believes the sanctuary will be able to hold about 80 canines, in contrast to the 42 that can currently be housed at the adoption center.
The cat village will be set up to house close to 100 cats when fully built out, as opposed to the adoption center’s current capacity of 40-50, Bitz says. The dog village is slated to have a dog park, splash pool and dog agility course, and the property will have hiking trails where volunteers and staff can take dogs for walks without having to transport them elsewhere. Felines will be able to bask in the sun on “catios” and hang out with human companions at a cat café, while those with acute medical problems or recovering from trauma will have isolated housing, according to BWAR’s sanctuary brochure.
Klein outlines her dismay with what she sees as a shift in Brother Wolf’s mission. “Everything is focused more on veganism than the true mission of what Brother Wolf should be,” says Klein, who would prefer a focus on dog and cat rescue only.
Bitz rebuts the idea that BWAR’s intention to help dogs and cats has ever faltered. “Our mission is still very much to build and help create and sustain a no-kill community,” she says. “That’s the No. 1 reason that we’re building this sanctuary, is because our community does not have a resources for long-term rehabilitation.”
“There are some people out there trying to make it out like we are no longer rescuing dogs and cats and we are just a farm animal rescue, and that is so false!” Bitz says. “If anything, we’ve really amped up our dog and cat rescue,” she adds, pointing to the group’s work in rescuing and transporting hundreds of animals after hurricanes Irma and Harvey.
Brother Wolf has merely extended its compassion to all animals, Bitz says. “I think that is a natural evolution that a lot of organizations that are organized to help animals should consider,” she says. “I don’t think it’s anything outside of our mission.”
Some donors to Brother Wolf have said they support its decisions. Wicked Weed Brewery donated $50,000 just prior to the announcement of the move out of the Glendale space. The brewery’s founder, Rick Guthy, told Xpress after BWAR said it would close the Glendale center that the gift had no stipulations or specific instructions. The company continues to support and applaud the work that Brother Wolf has done in the community, he said.
Barb Gardner of Mills River, a former trustee of the Donald C. Jones Foundation, which donated $400,000 in matching gifts by the end of 2016, told Xpress after the closure announcement, “As far as we’re concerned, we’re very happy with all the stuff going on [with Brother Wolf].”
Brother Wolf’s IRS form 990 for 2016, filed Nov. 1 of this year, shows a decrease in money coming in, from $3.1 million in 2015 to $2.6 million in 2016. That revenue comes from a variety of sources, including donations, grants, fundraisers, and fees for adoption and grooming. The executive summary from Bitz explains that this dip can be attributed to the fact that the organization brought in a higher-than-usual amount of donations in 2015 as part of its capital campaign for the sanctuary. “Because of the capital campaign launch in 2015, total donations were significantly greater (16.8%) in the launch year as compared to 2016,” Bitz states on the tax form. Revenue for 2016 still remains higher than in previous years; Brother Wolf reported $2.2 million in revenue in 2014, $1.5 million in 2013, and $1.1 million in 2012, and $683,800 in 2011.
Bitz says the sanctuary is “absolutely on mission” and that donations can be earmarked for a particular aspect of the group’s work. “If anybody wants to donate and they don’t like farm animals and they want to make sure their money goes to dogs because that’s all they care about, that’s great. They just send in their donation with a note that says ‘for dogs only,’” she says. “We have people that want to donate just to farm animals and don’t want it to be used for dogs and cats, so people can be very specific about their donations.”
The Brother Wolf sanctuary aims to become an educational resource to show “what it really takes to build a no-kill community,” Bitz says. “We’re trying to create a facility that will bring people from all over the world to bond with animals and to help work with our troubled dogs, scared cats and pigs that are abandoned. … It’s going to be amazing.”
Bitz acknowledges that growth and evolution can be messy, but she maintains it’s worth the effort. “I know transition is hard for people,” she says. “But I assure you, we’ve been here for 10 years, people believe in Brother Wolf, they know we’re going to do what we say we’re going to do, and if they can help us get through this transition year, they will be so proud of what we’re creating for Asheville and for the entire country.”
Additional reporting by Nicki Glasser