by Dustin Rhodes
Denise Bitz is a registered nurse by trade and a dog and cat lover by default—a care-taker deep in her bones. When she landed in Asheville, N.C.—a picturesque mountain town in Western North Carolina—Bitz started volunteering at the local humane society, first by working in the shelter itself and later by fostering animals at her home through a now-defunct local foster network.
Even though a nurse bears witness to tragedy and pain more than most of us, Bitz was deeply disturbed by what she started to see on a frequent basis at the local humane society: She’d work with a dog at the pound one day, and a few days later, when she’d inquire about the animal, it would be dead—another victim of systemic killing in the shelter system.
“I really became aware of the dog issue during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath in 2005,” said Bitz. “I saw dogs on TV swimming for their lives, and people dying because they refused to leave their pets behind. Something about that experience caused me to say to myself, ‘I am going to help animals in the future.’”.
Instead of walking away from the problem, Bitz did something radical: In 2007, she founded Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville—an organization committed to a no-kill philosophy. Brother Wolf, in its first year, did 60 dog adoptions, which, at the time, “seemed like a massive number,” recalls Bitz.
That first year, there were just a handful of volunteers, who were fostering the dogs in their homes. “We were trying to take in as many as we could and trying to get them adopted out as quickly as possible.”
Fast forward to 2015 and 2016—6,000 dogs and cats (guinea pigs, rabbits and pot-bellied pigs, too) passed through the doors of Brother Wolf, who may have been killed otherwise. In addition to an increase in the number of animals Brother Wolf can accommodate, there’s now a pet food pantry (for low-income residents), a behavioral and training program designed to help those with problem pets to address them and thus prevent owner surrender; and a loan program to assist people with dire veterinary needs, which also prevents animals from re-entering into the shelter system. Since its inception, more than 20,000 animals have found a safe haven at Brother Wolf and untold others have been spared the trauma of abandonment through its preventative programs.
This year, Brother Wolf took animal rescue to another level, launching a new program—Asheville Vegan Outreach, whose sole purpose is to bring vegan programming and a plant-based community to the Asheville area. Already staff members have hosted guest speakers, activist events, a film and other gatherings aimed at bringing animal lovers together.
Like many who work in animal rescue, Bitz didn’t connect all of the dots at first and wasn’t living a vegan lifestyle when she founded Brother Wolf. While Bitz became a lacto-ovo vegetarian early in life, she describes her former self as a “junk-food vegetarian,” Bitz laughs: “I really just ate a lot of junk food; and I really believed at that time that cows were here to provide us with milk and chickens to provide eggs. I didn’t even question that.”
But Bitz crossed paths with a mentor from the animal rescue world—Paul Berry, who moved to Asheville with the dream of opening a juice bar. Bitz describes Berry as a patient adviser “who answered a lot of questions I hadn’t considered.”
Bitz describes her vegan revelation as sudden, and that she made the commitment to change overnight: “It was a really powerful experience. Even my personal health changed dramatically. I lost 75 pounds as a result of becoming vegan.” Bitz hasn’t looked back.
Bitz decided to make Brother Wolf vegan, too. “I immediately enacted policies that just made sense—the first being that any event could only serve vegan food. It’s insanity how many dog and cat organizations host events that serve animals to eat at a benefit for animals.”
When asked whether there has been push-back, Bitz concedes that there has been some, but that it’s mostly been a positive response—even in the larger community: “We’ve received a lot of support; yes, some left our organization, but overall it’s strengthened us.”
Bitz also convinced Berry to take the job of executive director at Brother Wolf. They’ve become a formidable team, one that is on the brink of another project that also embraces animal rescue and veganism.
A sanctuary is born
Due to a generous gift from a donor, Brother Wolf inherited 80 acres of property just outside of Asheville, and this fall, they hope to break ground on a brand new sanctuary that will provide refuge to cats, dogs, pigs, chickens, cows, goats, sheep and more.
Plans also include a learning center focused on humane education, which will host youth programs as well as conferences and seminars for folks who work or volunteer in the animal welfare industry. It will also provide education about farm animals (and why they should not be eaten or exploited; an on-site veterinary clinic; a vegan restaurant, and a cat café—a place to get coffee, have a snack and relax and get to know adoptable cats.
There will also be a dog park, with a pool for swimming. And even more exciting? There will be guest cabins where visitors can come and stay, get to know the animals and volunteer if they want.
The new property is stunning—filled with rolling hills and gorgeous mountain views people come to Asheville for. There are already a few lucky pigs, cows and dogs living at the new sanctuary, along with Bitz. They will be the first ambassadors of the new expanded Brother Wolf.
“The new sanctuary is a reflection of my own transformation as an animal advocate over the past 10 years,” Bitz says. “We started out just helping dogs. Then I learned about cats. Next came guinea pigs, rabbits, snakes, rats, etc. Then I became aware of the plight of farm animals. We want this new sanctuary to help people think about other animals—all animals—just like we do our dogs and cats—the ones we live with and love.”