12/28/2011 - Asheville-based Brother Wolf founder finds life's work
by Sabian Warren - Asheville Citizen Times
ASHEVILLE -- During her time as a nurse, Denise Bitz sometimes would wake up and not feel like going to work.
That never happens anymore, despite a job that keeps her going for as long as 18-20 hours a day.
Bitz, the dedicated -- some might say driven -- founder and executive director of Brother Wolf Animal Rescue, has found not only a new career path but her calling.
"I can't really explain it, but it was just what I was meant to do," she said. "It doesn't really seem like work."
The accomplishments at the no-kill animal shelter on Glendale Avenue are a testament to the dedication of Bitz and her staff to finding homes for homeless dogs and cats. The shelter opened in June 2009. Today, it employs 17 people full time and taps into a volunteer force of more than 1,200.
The organization operates under a $485,000 budget, with no money coming from government sources. More importantly, Bitz said, the shelter this year has adopted out about 2,600 pets.
"We fundraise like crazy," Bitz said. "I didn't know anything about running a business, but you have to look at it like a business."
Private donations, benefits, grants -- along with a Brother Wolf thrift store that helps pay for the shelter -- all provide money. The nonprofit's 2011 Masquerade Furball is Dec. 31, giving people a chance to help the cause while enjoying a night out on New Year's Eve.
How it started
Bitz, 37, grew up on Long Island, N.Y., the kind of kid who brought home stray dogs and injured birds to nurse back to health.
Trained as an RN, she worked as a traveling nurse for 12 years, a well-paying job that took her to Denver, Seattle, Las Vegas and other cities across the country -- wherever a nursing shortage existed. She moved to Asheville five years ago after seeing the city featured in a magazine top 10 list, going to work at Mission Hospital.
She had volunteered at animal shelters along the way, but the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which took a heavy toll not only on people but pets, was a turning point for her.
"During Hurricane Katrina, the whole plight of homeless animals became so obvious," Bitz said. "When I saw animals clinging to debris and on rooftops, I felt like I needed to do something."
She got her chance in Asheville, with help from Joelle Warren, who had been running her own animal rescue in West Asheville. Warren, who today is Brother Wolf's director of operations, and Bitz started out in 2007 by creating a network of pet foster homes before opening the shelter in 2009.
"She's definitely my right-hand woman," Bitz said of Warren. "I couldn't do this without her."
Bitz kept working as a nurse for several months after Brother Wolf opened but eventually had to quit her job at the hospital as the shelter took more and more of her time -- to the chagrin of her extended family in New York.
"My family keeps holding out hope that I'll go back to nursing, but I don't think I will," she said. "Once you do this, it kind of gets in your blood. It's hard to get out."
The shelter is open seven days a week, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Saturday and 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday, hence the need for the large staff to maximize the chances of adoption for animals there.
"You have to be open before people go to work and when they get off. And on weekends," Bitz said.
Running a nonprofit hasn't come without a cost. Bitz took a big pay cut when she left nursing, but she said, "I'm not a person who needs a lot of stuff."
Even with the hardships, the rewards are greater. The Brother Wolf staff is very close-knit, and thousands of animals are saved from being euthanized.
"We're like a big family," Bitz said. "Definitely, when you work with people seven days a week, it becomes a family. I don't have any regrets. I think about almost 5,000 animals that Brother Wolf has saved, and I don't regret that. Life is too short to stay in a job or anything that makes you unhappy."