“Keeping aggressive animals isn’t the solution for lifesaving”
ASHEVILLE, North Carolina––“We are warehousing aggressive animals at Brother Wolf when we know this isn’t the solution for lifesaving,” executive director Leah Craig Fieser acknowledged in “Warehousing is not working,” a December 5, 2019 social media statement inspiring heated debate nationwide.
“We inherited this way of operating,” Fieser said, 11 months into her first year as executive director of one of the most prominent U.S. no-kill shelters, “but we will not continue it. We are simply not doing our best for animal rescue as a whole by warehousing aggressive animals and we’re not going to do it any more.
“Adopting out animals who have a history of aggression is not responsible,” Fieser emphasized. “It is also not responsible to have highly aggressive animals interact with shelter staff and volunteers. In the end this does more harm than good as victims suffer, animals are returned, and a narrative develops about the undesirability of shelter animals as a whole.
“Brother Wolf has adopted out aggressive dogs in the past and by doing so has created some serious consequences for children, adults, and animals,” admitted Fieser.
“Aggression can’t be fixed, only managed,” Fieser added, “and when management fails, that family, or their neighbor, or their visitor’s child, or other animals in the house are seriously injured or killed. With these levels of aggression, it’s not a question of if something bad will happen, it’s simply a matter of when.”
Fieser did not specifically mention pit bulls. Indeed, the Brother Wolf page on Facebook continues to feature a pit bull in the cover photo, advertising other pit bulls for adoption.
But pit bulls rehomed and/or offered for rehoming by Brother Wolf have been involved in several biting incidents in recent years.
Joshua Strother & the Blackjack case
Pit bulls rehomed from other shelters in North Carolina have been involved in at least nine attacks resulting in serious injuries since June 2015, when the Asheville Humane Society rehomed a pit bull who killed six-year-old Joshua Strother just a few weeks later.
Also in the greater Asheville area, the Humane Society of Catawba County in April 2018 rehomed a 60-pound pit bull named Blackjack with bite scars on his neck to a family including two toddlers.
Four days later, on May 2, 2018, Blackjack inflicted a facially disfiguring bite on one of them, four-year-old Jazmine Turner. Blackjack was at the time in the victim’s mother’s lap, but the mother was unable to react quickly enough to intervene.
Rhubarb, Ferguson, & Tucker
Fieser wrote “Warehousing is not working,” explained Asheville Citizen Times reporter Elizabeth Anne Brown, in response to months of sustained criticism from former Brother Wolf volunteers and staff over her decisions to euthanize three pit bulls or pit mixes named Rhubarb, Ferguson, and Tucker.
Rhubarb and Ferguson were euthanized in August 2019; Tucker in November 2019.
“Ferguson has three or four (previous bites), one pretty serious to a photographer on (the Brother Wolf) campus,” Brother Wolf animal care manager Brian McDermott told the Asheville Citizen Times in September 2019.
“Rhubarb has two bites, one to an adult and one to a child, with severe dog aggression,” McDermott added.
Wrote Brown, “At one point when Rhubarb was living in a home environment, a neighbor’s unleashed dog rushed in the front door and Rhubarb attacked, Fieser explained.”
Said Fieser, “The (neighbor dog’s owner) had to beat Rhubarb with a golf club until she was unconscious because she wouldn’t let go.”
“Pacing, circling, tail-chasing & biting”
“Rhubarb and Ferguson, have both been with us for over a year,” Fieser elaborated. “Both have had foster home placement, they have worked with our behavior team and volunteers, we have tried prescription drugs to help them with their anxieties, and we set up a special housing area for Rhubarb, who was adopted out but returned. None of it made them better and we watched them continue to decline.
“Both of these dogs have a history of aggression and reactivity with people and other animals, which makes them very difficult placements,” Fieser said. “Rhubarb spent some time in a home but came back to us after she broke out of the house, attacking and severely biting her then-owner in the leg. This is a physical and emotional scar that the adopter will have with her for the rest of her life.
“Both dogs have been displaying compulsive behaviors that are considered indicative of poor welfare and chronic stress,” Fieser acknowledged, “including pacing, circling, tail-chasing and biting, reactivity, and chronic anxiety. Both dogs have been on heavy anxiety medication for an extended amount of time but are not improving.”
“People did step forward, but none offered appropriate homes”
Former volunteers and others complained that they had not been allowed to adopt Ferguson, Rhubarb, and Tucker.
“Though a handful of people did step forward,” Fieser said “none of them offered appropriate homes for these dogs, as they could not go to a home with children, other pets, or people who are not able to handle their specific needs, due to their history of aggression.
“We surrounded Ferguson, Rhubarb, and Tucker with their favorite things, and people they loved, and we said goodbye because it was the best thing for them,” Fieser said, reminding readers that “We have to weigh the animal’s welfare with the safety of our community. When you adopt a dog, you not only affect your own household but also your neighborhood and the other people and animals who your animal will come into contact with.”
Contrary to common community belief based on past policies, Fieser wrote, “Brother Wolf is not a long-term care facility and we are not a sanctuary. Brother Wolf is here to save animals in western North Carolina,” Fieser said. “Thousands of animals are dying each month right around us. We must work with a limited building and budget to do the best we can for the greatest number of animals.”
“Funds raised for sanctuary fell far short”
Under Brother Wolf founding president Denise Bitz and former executive director Paul Berry, who previously was general manager of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah, Fieser recalled, “Brother Wolf embarked on a capital campaign to build a sanctuary. The administration at that time was aware that the organization was accumulating dogs who would not be able to be placed in a home setting.
“Sadly, the funds raised to build that sanctuary fell far short of what was needed, and were spent on the planning phases of the project with few tangible outcomes,” Fieser recounted. “The project unfortunately had to be abandoned. We now have no sanctuary built for these dogs,” who meanwhile “have been living in a warehouse-turned-shelter. Our longest stay dog has lived in this shelter for five years.
“These dogs do not lead lives that any of us would want for our own animals,” Fieser said. “They spend up to 22 hours a day in isolation in their kennels, as almost all of them are too dangerous to interact with other dogs, and most of them can only interact with a small group of staff or volunteers with expert handling skills due to their aggression. Most are on prescription medicine multiple times a day to help them cope with the life a dog must endure when sheltered long term.
Criteria for “dangerous”
“While we evaluate each animal on a case-by-case basis,” Fieser stipulated, “in general, Brother Wolf will not adopt out dogs who:
- Have a damaging bite history towards children or adults.
- Do not show warning signs before they attempt to bite.
- Have severely injured or killed another dog.
- Cannot be safely handled due to aggressive behaviors.
- Show offensive aggression towards humans (actively decreasing the distance between themselves and the person they are aggressing towards).
- Stalk children in a predatory manner.
- Show uninterruptible aggression towards other dogs.
- Show poor bite inhibition (degree to which dog moderates tooth contact in the case of a bite).”
Gaps in definition
Qualified Fieser, “Bites that are determined to be fluke bites are not considered aggression. Fluke bites are bites by a dog that occur during uncommon circumstances that are not likely to be repeated, e.g. while in acute physical pain, while with puppies during lactation, while under sedation, etc.”
In addition, the Brother Wolf criteria for defining dangerous dogs conspicuously omit dogs who have attacked or stalk cats, wildlife, and other domesticated animals.
The Fieser statement “Warehousing is not working” was no more favorably received by her social media critics than had been her euthanasia decisions.
“You claim these dogs don’t get out enough,” charged Nicole Kott, “but you fired the gentleman who ran Outward Hounds, a hiking program for your rescues, and then euthanized a dog from that program.”
“Dog aggression” becomes “human aggression”
But another critic, Asheville resident Sandra Krakowiak, shed a different light on that allegation.
“I worked with Ferguson, one of the dogs euthanized recently, for almost two years,” Krakowiak wrote to the MountainX.com online news portal. “He was described as ‘aggressive.’ With dogs, yes, but not with people.
“A volunteer who was known to take dogs out without asking staff took Ferguson on an Outward Hounds hike on August 12, 2019,” Krakowiak said. “He didn’t know Ferguson and took him without a muzzle, which he wore because of reactivity with other dogs. This volunteer and another man tried to force a muzzle on Ferguson while all the dogs were barking around them; he bit the guy on the leg.”
Translation: “dog aggression” for Ferguson easily redirected into attacking a human handler, who allegedly took Ferguson out without permission, and without the required muzzle, into a situation comparable to what any dog might encounter––and easily handle, without violence––at a dog park.
ASPCA does not work with aggressive dogs
Asked another critic, pit bull advocate Linda Buice, “Just curious––what about the ASPCA facility in Weaversville? I thought their purpose was to work to rehab dogs with behavioral issues.”
The New York City-based American SPCA in May 2018 opened a 13-acre Behavioral Rehabilitation Center about 10 miles from Brother Wolf, describing it as “The first-ever permanent facility dedicated to the rehabilitation and study of extremely fearful, unadoptable homeless dogs, most of whom are victims of cruelty or neglect.”
But the Behavioral Rehabilitation Center handles only 65 dogs at a time, and as Fieser responded, “They do not work with dogs with a history of aggression. They work with fearful dogs.”
Still another critic, Asheville veterinary technician Nikelle Astipalitis, hit at the criteria Brother Wolf uses to describe itself as no-kill––which are the criteria prescribed by the Best Friends Animal Society, Maddie’s Fund, the No Kill Advocacy Center, and others, though not accepted by ANIMALS 24-7.
“In 2018,” Astipalitis said, “Brother Wolf began the year with 699 animals in their care and brought in 4,058 more intakes throughout the year. 3,802 of those animals had ‘live outcomes,’ meaning they were adopted, transferred to another organization, or were returned to the field as ‘community cats.’ The remaining 191 had ‘other outcomes,’ meaning they died in care, either from euthanasia or otherwise, or were lost in care and had outcomes that were unknown. In the end, their live release rate was 95.2%, well within the no-kill margin.”
However, Astipalitis pointed out, “Because of their intake volume, 475 animals could have died in their care in 2018 and Brother Wolf still could have identified as no-kill.”
Why “live release rate” means nothing
Indirectly replied Fieser, “While live outcome rates are one important measure, we must look at the full picture. A shelter that takes in 100 animals per year and rehomes all of them, euthanizing none, has a 100% live outcome rate and has impacted 100 animals. A shelter who takes in 10,000 animals per year and rehomes 8,500 of them, euthanizing 1,500, has an 85% live outcome rate and has impacted 8,500 animals. Both the number of animals impacted and live outcome rates are important to understand.
“In addition,” Fieser mentioned, “we must consider what the community of animals the shelter is assisting looks like. A shelter who takes in a greater number of elderly, injured, or neonatal animals may have a lower live outcome rate based on the fragility of the population they are serving. For example, at Brother Wolf we care for a large number of very young kittens each year and these animals sadly have a higher mortality rate.”
These considerations are why ANIMALS 24-7 bases our assessments of shelter achievement on ratios of animal intake and exits to the human population of the service radius.
Because the success of “no kill” shelters in any given area is heavily dependent upon the work done by “open admission” and animal control shelters serving the same communities, ANIMALS 24-7 combines the data from all shelters within the service radius, rather than considering any one shelter by itself––unless it is the only shelter in the community.
Said Fieser, “Brother Wolf has rescued 1,282 dogs this year so far and has had nine behavioral euthanasias; less than one percent (0.7%). Our total annual intake number to date is 2,034 and rising (cats and dogs combined).”
“Choosing between the many and the few is a moral dilemma,” Fieser wrote. “Take ten kennels at Brother Wolf, fill those ten kennels with adoptable dogs whose average length of stay is two weeks, and we can save 260 lives every year. Fill those kennels with aggressive dogs who cannot be safely placed, and over the course of ten years you have committed 10 dogs to a life of warehousing – while also indirectly facilitating the euthanasia of 2,500 adoptable dogs who now have nowhere to land.
“The no-kill movement started because healthy, adoptable animals were being euthanized,” Fieser finished. “At best, the no-kill movement inspires the nation’s shelter system to save those who can be saved. At its worst, it pressures shelters to warehouse or adopt out animals who are not safe to be placed into communities, and confuses the public into thinking that the way to create change is to attack responsible shelters who are making humane choices.”
Founder Bitz cashed in retirement savings
Fieser, events director at Brother Wolf from 2015 into 2017, succeeded Bitz after having been laid off and working in the interim with Friends of the Western North Carolina Nature Center.
Bitz “stepped down 12 years after cashing in her retirement savings to start the state’s largest ‘no-kill’ organization,” reported Sam DeGrave for the Asheville Citizen Times in January 2019.
“In 2007, Bitz emptied her $42,000 retirement savings in order to start Brother Wolf, a response to what she deemed the appalling kill rate of other shelters,” DeGrave recalled.
“Brother Wolf has grown significantly since then,” DeGrave continued. “In 2017 — the last year for which the nonprofits’ filings are available — the shelter took in $3.2 million, a sizable increase over the prior year’s $1.7 million in contributions. During 2008, Brother Wolf’s first full year, the organization received about $65,000 in contributions.
Bitz, a former hospital trauma nurse, departed after more than a year of turmoil due to financial stress and unfulfilled plans, telling DeGrave that she hoped to “work for a plant-based physician” in Asheville, whom she did not name.
“Bad management & bad decisions”
“Volunteer turnover and complaints coupled with public pressure regarding a plan to close Brother Wolf’s adoption center — a plan that has since been tabled — have made news within the last few years,” DeGrave acknowledged. “Additionally, Brother Wolf executive director Paul Berry left his post in late July 2018 under circumstances [board president Dustin] Rhodes said he couldn’t comment on. After Berry’s departure, Bitz had to resume her role as director while serving as board president.”
Rhodes, meanwhile, doubles as development director for the Connecticut-based national advocacy organization Friends of Animals.
Fieser began making changes at Brother Wolf about four months into her tenure, after announcing “a nearly $1 million funding gap,” reported Frank Kracher of WLOS News 13 in Asheville.
Fieser at an April 29, 2019 community forum attributed the red ink “to bad management and bad decisions of the past,” Kracher summarized.
Community did not support vegan agenda
“She said a big part was the plan [advanced by Bitz] for a farmed animal sanctuary on 82 acres in Leicester,” 11 miles from Asheville,” Kracher recounted. “She said the plan had already cost Brother Wolf $2 million and alienated some donors.”
“Along the way,” alleged Fieser, “there was very dividing messaging used in regards to farm animal rescue and veganism.”
Fieser pledged to return Brother Wolf “to its core mission––promoting no-kill communities, saving cats and dogs and companion animals.”
Whether that actually was the core mission of the organization as Bitz envisioned it, it was the core mission as perceived by most donors, funders, and volunteers, even as Bitz formed the subsidiary organization Asheville Vegan Outreach in 2015, adopted a vegan policy for Brother Wolf fundraising events, and in November 2017 “started a campaign to encourage fellow animal rescue groups across the country to adopt a public vegan policy in response to the urgent crises of climate change and mass species extinction now underway,” in the words of then-community outreach manager Caitlin Campbell.
Inspired by Best Friends & Farm Sanctuary
As of December 2017, a year before Bitz exited, she told Carolyn Morrisroe of MountainX.com that she planned to relocate the entire Brother Wolf operation from Asheville to the Leicester sanctuary that never opened. There Bitz envisioned building “dog and cat villages for adoptable and rehabilitating pets, a learning center, guest cabins, a memorial garden, hiking trails and facilities for farmed animals,” mostly modeled after the Best Friends Animal Society campus in Kanab, Utah––which Best Friends itself is reportedly downsizing and de-emphasizing in favor of building a higher national profile in advocacy.
The farmed animals component, however, appeared to be inspired chiefly by the Farm Sanctuary facilities in upstate New York and both northern and southern California.
“The building that houses Brother Wolf’s 9,600-square-foot adoption center in Asheville has been on the market for a few months,” Morrisoe reported, “and its asking price recently dropped from $910,000 to $870,000.”
Cut loose three affiliates
While developing her sanctuary plans, Bitz helped volunteers to establish affiliate dog-and-cat rescue organizations in McDowell and Rutherford counties in North Carolina, and Dickenson County, Virginia.
Fieser cut the affiliates loose to fend for themselves as “independent non-profit organizations,” reported Ken Ulmer of the eight-station Asheville Radio Group in September 2019.
“The Dickenson County chapter will become the Heart of Appalachia Animal Rescue. This chapter began in 2014,” Ulmer explained.
“The McDowell County chapter, founded in 2016, now operates under the name Day One Animal Rescue.
“The Rutherford County chapter will be known as Heart of the Foothills Animal Rescue. This chapter was founded in 2016.
“In 2018, the Rutherford chapter installed kennels to transform the space into an adoption center,” Ulmer added.