Even if you love something, sometimes you need to let it go. That sentiment has apparently rung true for Denise Bitz, who announced in early January that she was stepping down as president and executive director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, the organization she founded.
“As you can imagine, it was a difficult decision,” says Bitz. “Brother Wolf, it sounds kind of silly to call it my baby, but it is my baby.”
The nonprofit, which Bitz launched in her basement 12 years ago with the goal of reducing shelter animal deaths in Buncombe County, has since ballooned into a multimillion-dollar enterprise with about 75 paid staff and thousands of volunteers spread across four chapters. Today, Brother Wolf bills itself as the largest no-kill rescue organization in North Carolina, providing services to more than 6,000 animals a year through adoptions, rapid response efforts and a dedicated network of foster care providers and other volunteers.
Despite Brother Wolf’s remarkable record of success, however, the nonprofit has also seen its share of controversy in recent years, including questions about financial transparency and a feeling among some staff, donors, volunteers and other community members that the organization had strayed from its core mission. Xpress contacted a number of those critics, few of whom were willing to go on the record. And in a Feb. 19 press release, Brother Wolf declared its intention to return to its roots.
The way Bitz explains it, after more than a decade of championing companion animals such as cats and dogs, she gradually began to broaden her scope.
“I think Brother Wolf has been a reflection of my own personal evolution toward animals. I think, when I started Brother Wolf, I would label myself as an animal welfare advocate. That was 12 years ago,” Bitz says. “Now, I would label myself more like an animal rights activist and an environmental activist because of everything I’ve learned over the years about other animals and the devastation on our planet as a result of animal agriculture.”
And for Brother Wolf to continue to grow, she maintains, a change of leadership was needed.
“I feel really, really grateful to have had this opportunity to help take a community from one that was killing around 85 percent of its companion animals to, now, a community that consistently saves greater than 90 percent,” notes Bitz. “But it was the best decision and in the best interest of the organization.”
Bitz tapped Leah Craig Fieser to take the reins as Brother Wolf’s executive director. Fieser, who started work in late January, has a strong background working with nonprofits, including stints with the Friends of the Western North Carolina Nature Center, Eliada, the Catskill Animal Sanctuary and The Children’s Museum of Wilmington. She previously studied communications and animal science at NC State University and served as Brother Wolf’s event director from May 2015 to July 2017.
“I always knew that I wanted to work on behalf of animals, but I didn’t know what exactly that was going to look like,” says Fieser. “I just have always loved the nonprofit world. It’s been such a good fit for me, and I feel like it’s a good fit for my skill set and for my heart. I’m really excited now to step into the role.”
Both women say the decision to step down was Bitz’s and that they’ve been working together to ensure a smooth transition. According to Fieser, Bitz had “really accomplished what she wanted to accomplish. … It was her decision that this was the right time for her, and it was her decision to reach out to me and then to get the board involved in that process. She’s definitely blessed all of this.”
A turbulent few years
The nonprofit has weathered many storms over the years, including a break-in and theft of about 2,000 pounds of pet food in 2017 and the controversial decision last year to initially file a police report against a woman who’d dropped off kittens during the night.
Brian McDermott, the organization’s animal care supervisor, says he’s seen many ups and downs during his more than six years with Brother Wolf. Among the biggest changes, he maintains, has been the expansion of animal rescue services beyond local cats and dogs.
“When I started, we were primarily a companion animal type rescue,” McDermott recalls. “Over the years, especially over the last couple of years, I think we’ve branched out more into doing a lot more farmed animals and rapid response and hurricane relief and forest fire relief, stuff like that.”
Asheville resident Dana Smith, a longtime supporter of the organization, says, “We always loved Brother Wolf. When there was stuff that needed to be donated or whatever, we would take it there. But then everything kind of got crazy.”
Some of those changes began around the time that Paul Berry, the former CEO of Best Friends Animal Society in Utah, was hired as executive director in late 2013, with Bitz serving as president. Tax filings show that Berry was given an initial salary and benefits of nearly $86,000.
Berry, who’s been in the animal rescue business for decades, gained notoriety through his Hurricane Katrina rescue efforts and rehabilitation of animals rescued from convicted dogfighter Michael Vick. A nationally televised series, DogTown, focused on Berry’s work with Best Friends.
After serving as Best Friends’ CEO for three years, Berry left the organization in 2009. A January 2009 article from the Deseret News in Utah said the group was looking for a leader who was “more about generating stability” rather than being an agent of change. He then served as interim executive director of Alley Cat Allies, a national cat advocacy group, before joining Brother Wolf six years ago.
Berry left Brother Wolf in July of last year without a formal announcement or explanation. Both current and former employees declined to comment on what led to his departure, and Berry wasn’t willing to be interviewed.
During Berry’s tenure, some employees and volunteers took issue with what they saw as a shift in Brother Wolf’s overall mission, Xpress reported in December 2017. Among other things, the organization adopted a vegan-only policy, which Fieser maintains simply means that only vegan food is served at events and that staff, volunteers and visitors are asked not to bring nonvegan food onto the premises.
Asheville resident Debbie Johnson, a Brother Wolf volunteer, foster care provider and donor for five years, says she began scaling back her involvement after learning that funding and other resources were being used for vegan outreach.
“I’ve learned a lot about veganism from some of the programs they have sponsored and put on,” notes Johnson. “I think it’s a worthwhile educational piece. It’s just that you need to be a little more upfront about the fact that you’re spending some significant money in that area when people think they’re just donating to dog and cat rescue.”
“Everybody has always thought that they were saving dogs and cats. I’m not anti-vegan: I respect that completely, but you can’t take people’s money when we’re all thinking it’s for dogs and cats,” says Smith.
Audrey Lodato, Brother Wolf’s director of animal care, offers a different perspective. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about it, because 99 percent of the work that we do is around companion animals. Our primary focus now and always has been building no-kill communities and stopping the killing of shelter animals,” says Lodato, who oversees the daily operations of the adoption center at 31 Glendale Ave. in Asheville as well as other chapter locations.
But a diversifying mission hasn’t been the only source of controversy. Back in 2017, concerns were also raised about the organization’s financial stability and why a number of volunteers and staff had recently quit or been let go.
Teresa Owen, who volunteered with Brother Wolf from 2015-17, says the trouble began when a small group of foster care providers and other volunteers began asking specific questions about Brother Wolf’s finances and how certain animals were being cared for. After receiving no response from the leadership, Owen says the group began speaking out publicly. Soon after, she reports, many of those critics said they were no longer receiving emails regarding new animals in need or had been informed that their help wasn’t needed anymore.
“It was a huge part of our lives, of our identities,” says Owen.“Losing that connection, whether by being fired, being ghosted or leaving because of our difference in ideology, was devastating for us: It felt like a divorce or a death. I wish great success for Brother Wolf, but I can’t imagine us going back.”
Lodato, however, maintains that the main disagreements had to do with how Brother Wolf managed certain animals through its pet retention program, which provides support aimed at keeping pets out of the shelter system. “Sometimes going through that process can be complicated, and not everybody is always going to agree with the way that is [done],” she says.
Since leaving the organization, some former employees and volunteers have formed new rescue groups or joined other existing efforts. More than a dozen former employees and volunteers who were contacted by Xpress declined to comment publicly, including some who said they feared retaliation for speaking out. Others simply signaled a desire to move on.
Lodato, meanwhile, stresses that while there may have been disagreements in the past, saving animals remains the bottom line for everyone involved. “Really we’re all on the same team. Everybody wants the same thing, which is for there not to be animals euthanized unnecessarily in Buncombe County, and the more resources that can be developed around that, the better,” she says.
In 2015, Brother Wolf announced ambitious plans for a sanctuary after an anonymous donor provided $500,000 to buy a more than 80-acre property that was valued at around $600,000. The proposed dog and cat village would have space for 1,200 animals, an on-site veterinary clinic, guest cabins, a memorial garden and a welcome center. The estimated cost was nearly $5 million.
Bitz says she was “given some bad advice” concerning basic infrastructure, which resulted in delays and miscalculations. The first phase of the project was originally supposed to be completed by 2016.
Deltec Homes was listed on Brother Wolf’s website as a partner and contractor for the sanctuary project. Dallam Hart, the company’s director of sales and commercial specialist, says that Deltec has yet to even break ground on the property, citing long wait times for building permits. Hart says the company is also waiting for the go-ahead from Brother Wolf.
And while Hart is no longer heading up the project for the company, he says Deltec officials met with Brother Wolf’s new leadership several weeks ago to start planning how to move forward.
Hart also emphasizes that delays are not unusual in large-scale developments.
“I don’t think it’s any more delayed or that it’s anything out of the ordinary for this scope of a project. I’ve been doing this for 22 years, and even on residential projects that I’ve worked on, generally speaking it takes two to three times as long as people anticipate,” he points out.
As of December 2017, Brother Wolf had raised about $2.55 million — 51 percent of the funding goal — for the project, Xpress reported at the time. But on Feb. 15 of this year, information about sanctuary funds and projections was removed from the website and replaced with a statement from Fieser asking for patience as she works through years of records related to the project.
“To better understand the entirety of the sanctuary project, I will be reviewing financials, meeting with past and present project contractors, speaking with donors who gave to the project and conferring with Brother Wolf’s board of directors, management team and staff members,” the statement explains. “I value honesty and transparency and believe our community deserves it. I will know more about the status of the project within a few months and will keep you updated about how we will be moving forward.”
The page also includes a link to an anonymous online survey to gather public comment, which Lodato says will help guide the project. “We wanted to give people the chance to speak about it and give their input,”she explains.
Adoption center to remain open
While the future of the sanctuary project remains unclear, Fieser confirmed in the Feb. 19 press release that the Glendale Avenue adoption center will remain open, reversing previous plans to close the facility.
The adoption center, says Fieser, is “a critical need for our community, and so we are fully committed to being here and running our operations out of Glendale. It’s still a long-term goal to have a state-of-the-art facility for our animals that will allow us to expand our programs and to serve more.”
The press release also predicted that with the recent addition of a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic and a staff veterinarian, Brother Wolf will positively affect roughly 10,000 animals this year, a more than 65 percent increase from the number served in 2018. According to the release, the mobile clinic performs about 30 surgeries a day.
As Bitz reflects on letting go of the organization she birthed, she says, “I have mixed emotions, but the overall feeling that I have is gratitude: I feel really grateful and really proud. I feel really confident in not just the leadership that’s there now but also the other staff that are the backbone of the organization, who are in the trenches at the adoption center, who are working on our new mobile spay-and-neuter clinic.”
Bitz, who worked as a registered nurse before creating Brother Wolf, says she plans to get back into health care and focus on promoting a vegan diet and other lifestyle changes to treat disease and chronic illnesses. Her ambition is twofold: to help people implement healthy behaviors while reducing the impact of animal agriculture on climate change.
“I think, as an RN, I can work with a team who believes that diet can help save the future of this planet by what we eat three times a day,” says Bitz. “I think that I can have a bigger impact on helping animals and helping the planet.”
Bitz says she plans to volunteer with other animal and environmental groups and will also continue to donate to Brother Wolf, but she’s in no rush to step into a new job.
“I might take a couple of weeks off,” she says with a laugh.
Returning to the roots
Meanwhile, it remains to be seen what the new leadership brings to the organization.
Asheville resident Ryan Jaskot, who has provided foster care for dogs through Brother Wolf in the past, says that while he’s looking forward to changes at the nonprofit, he’s also hoping for more accountability.
“To me, the absolute best thing the new director could do would be to come in and say, ‘We know that things did not go how they were supposed to go in the past, and I’m here to let you know that we’re cleaning it up,’” Jaskot says.
For her part, former volunteer Johnson says that while she hopes she and others can eventually renew their support for the nonprofit, that may take time. “I’m so excited that [Fieser] is on board, because I think she’s a wonderful person and I think she will get Brother Wolf back to its roots, but it will be a tough road to navigate,” say Johnson.
Owen sounds a similar note. “I’ve heard positive things about Leah, and I’m very hopeful that the organization can refocus,” she says, adding, “I’m hoping for a lot more transparency and accountability with regard to finances.”
Despite all the challenges facing her, however, Fieser says she’s ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.
“This year we’ll be focusing on embracing our roots of companion animal rescue and our core mission of building no-kill communities.” Brother Wolf, she continues, “has done incredible work in this community, and the staff members and volunteers are so skilled and so passionate. What I really want to do is gather all of that in the most meaningful way possible. There’s so many good things going on at Brother Wolf, and I plan to start streamlining it and organizing it and getting to know our donors and our incredible staff. I’m just really looking forward to it.”