One North Carolina “no-kill” animal shelter’s announcement in December that it would euthanize dogs that were ineligible for adoption due to behavior issues has led to an angry backlash from some animal advocates in the region.
Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville has told Carolina Public Press that it has received death threats against staff members.
While most critics reject such extremism, emotions over the issue run high. Some say that those animals could have been sent to sanctuaries or adopted out to those willing to take them. Some who worked with the dogs argued that they were not a threat.
CPP reached out to talk with other animal rescue operations around the state about how they handle the same issues and found that while not everyone agreed with Brother Wolf’s stance, even the definition of “no-kill” is unclear.
According to the nationally recognized, Utah-based organization Best Friends, a no-kill shelter is one that has at least a 90 percent save rate.
Despite the controversy over its policy change, Brother Wolf is well within that margin. In a post on its website written on Dec. 10, Brother Wolf reported “behavioral euthanasias” made up 0.07 percent of its intake. It reported a 95 percent live release rate.
But other animal advocates say that’s too many animals being killed for any organization that presents itself to the public, volunteers and donors as “no-kill.”
The term “no-kill” is vague, overused and divisive, according to Darci VanderSlik, director of communications at the SPCA of Wake County.
“The public should look at a shelter’s admission policies, treatment of animals rather than relying on a term as overused as ‘no-kill.’”
Brother Wolf and its critics
Brother Wolf announced its policy change with a website post on Dec. 5, saying the habit of “warehousing” dogs ineligible for adoption was unfair to both those animals and other, adoptable animals that could use the space.
The dogs were not adoption candidates and had problems with aggression, according to the post, which noted that most of them lived at the shelter for longer than a year. The dogs faced many hours in “isolation” and were on medication “to help them cope with the life a dog must endure when sheltered long term.”
Brother Wolf said it began looking last October for sanctuaries to take these dogs but had already heard from nearly 20 by December that no space was available.
“We reached out to every possible sanctuary that we could find in the U.S.,” Leah Craig Fieser, the organization’s executive director, told CPP.
Fieser signed the announcement. In a January op-ed in the Asheville Citizen-Times, she said the organization’s past leadership made the “well-intended but, I believe, misguided decision to adopt aggressive dogs into the community,” adding that it was “unsafe and unethical.”
She said continuing to allow dogs with behavioral issues to be around people would be a mistake, but she did allow volunteers to see them before they were euthanized to be fair to both the dogs and the volunteers who bonded with them.
“They can only interact with certain people,” Fieser said.
“You would never usually find a shelter that has animals for years and years because it’s not a good practice and it’s unethical and it’s warehousing. So you have this really weird thing that happened that doesn’t usually happen at shelters, where a volunteer has gotten to know an animal over a number of years. And that’s a very strange reality for a shelter dog because they’re not going to be in a shelter for years and years.”
Fieser said Brother Wolf spoke with certified animal behaviorists before making the decision.
Brother Wolf uses the Ian Dunbar bite scale, which ranges from growling and similar behavior at level one to the death of a victim at level six.
One euthanized dog, Zurich, had given level three bites to two strangers, one in public and one in the adoption center, as well as multiple level one and two bites.
He also had a “history of lunging and snapping at people he hasn’t met when they enter his space,” Fieser said.
Brother Wolf accepted 1,376 dogs in 2019. Of those, 12 were euthanized due to behavioral concerns.
She added that concerned volunteers could have adopted the dogs before the policy changed.
Victoria Barratt, a former foster parent for Brother Wolf, told CPP that she and others question whether these dogs were actually dangerous.
“The concern here is how, and why, so many dogs are recently being placed in this category after, in many cases, months and years of being deemed ‘adoptable,’” Barratt said.
“These dogs were advertised on Brother Wolf’s website, foster emails and even the Hallmark Channel as being sweet, loving, ‘perfect’ and adoptable pets. It is a disturbing discrepancy for all who knew the dogs.”
Dangerous dogs are “assigned to behavior remediation, special sanctuary placement, or as a last resort is euthanized,” Barratt said.
“If an aggressive tendency was initially unseen or missed and later discovered, it would be necessary to document the incident, including medical records for any injured individual, and implement a management change for the dog immediately,” Barratt said.
“It would not mean allowing dangerous dogs into foster homes, unmuzzled in open pens with volunteers, or unmuzzled in our community, all of which Brother Wolf has done. Additionally, if the behaviorist on staff is misjudging such a large number of dogs in a short amount of time, that would also be cause for serious concern.”
A protest Facebook page, BWARe B Their Voice, has accumulated over 4,600 followers since the page was created on Dec. 2.
Angela Hughes, who started BWARe, has experience in animal rescue and has been a veterinary technician. She is not opposed to necessary euthanasia, she said.
“I do agree and understand some animals need to be euthanized if they’re declining and have a poor quality of life,” she said.
The dogs Brother Wolf euthanized should have been given more time before the decision was made, Hughes said, echoing Barratt’s concern that some had been advertised as “snuggly” and “playful.”
Hughes said she has warned her supporters that threats against other people, such as Brother Wolf’s leadership, will not be tolerated on her page.
However, Hughes received a threat of legal action Jan. 30 from Brother Wolf’s lawyers, who claimed Hughes has made false and defamatory statements about the organization.
Over 48,000 people have also signed a Change.org petition titled, “A moratorium on killing dogs at Brother Wolf Animal Rescue in Asheville, NC.”
Fieser said she understands the emotional investment of volunteers.
“We’re talking about life and death,” she said.
“It’s very emotional, and animal rescue is very emotional, anyways.”
What other ‘no-kill’ animal shelters say
Jackie Stickley, executive director of Fayetteville Animal Protection Society, told CPP that she agrees with the national standard favored by Best Friends of 90 percent live releases, as appropriate for a no-kill shelter.
But her organization strives to kill fewer animals and limits the reasons for euthanasia.
Fayetteville’s save rate is currently just over 97 percent, Stickley said. The shelter does not euthanize due to space or “treatable or manageable conditions,” she said.
“For us, we want to make sure first and foremost that everybody is safe, and two, that everybody is happy,” Stickley said.
“If a dog shows aggression toward a child, that’s manageable, because we can find a house that has no children.”
One distinction is that her shelter is not open admission. It selects which animals it receives.
In Wake County, the SPCA had a live release rate of 98.7. However, the SPCA only takes in the animals for which it has shelter or foster care slots.
“Once an animal comes into our care, we will not euthanize that pet except in cases of untreatable illness or if the animal poses a safety risk to the community,” said SPCA communications director VanderSlik.
The SPCA’s 2019 impact report notes 54 euthanasia cases for animals “who, for medical or behavior reasons, cannot be rehomed.”
Susan Deaton, director of Juliet’s House Animal Rescue in Greensboro, said her rescue takes in more than 500 animals each year.
“Juliet’s House largely deals with neonate kittens and puppies,” Deaton told CPP.
“We have only had one puppy returned as an adult who was perceived to be aggressive. We had him evaluated by a certified trainer and worked with him for months. Ten months later he is doing amazingly well in his new home.
“I know that shelters don’t have the luxury of this level of time and attention. Rescues have to step up in these situations.”
The Asheville SPCA also commented on the issue.
“Animal sheltering organizations should make every effort to find placement options for the animals in their care, while also retaining discretion to make the best decisions for those animals and the communities in which they live, particularly in cases involving behavior or medical issues,” the organization told CPP in an email.
“While some organizations may seek sanctuary placement for animals deemed unsuitable for placement in adoptive homes, any facility providing long-term housing for pets must meet the animals’ physical, behavioral, social and psychological needs.”
Sometimes, behavioral euthanasia is necessary, it said.
“Some dogs are unsuitable for placement when, despite a shelter’s best efforts, they suffer from a poor quality of life, their aggressive behavior makes them unsafe to place, or both,” the SPCA continued. “In these cases, humane euthanasia is the most appropriate outcome. We know these decisions are extremely difficult to make, and we hope the community will continue to support Brother Wolf and the important work they do for animals in Asheville.”
In Fayetteville, Stickley questioned Brother Wolf’s use of the term “warehousing” in its announcement.
“‘Warehousing’ makes it sound like inventory and not actually living beings,” Stickley said.
“(The term) makes it sound like you’re giving up hope and you’re just shoving something to the side.”
While most dogs have an average stay of about a month at the Fayetteville shelter, the longest a dog has stayed at Fayetteville was for more than 12 years. That dog had been there for seven years when Stickley started there and didn’t like men, children, dogs or cats.
“She’d been adopted multiple times and continued to come back,” Stickley said.”
“Our policy is once an animal steps into this building, we’re in it forever with this animal. … Once an animal is here, they are forever family. No matter what happens or wherever they’re found, they are microchipped so they’ll end up back with us.”
That dog did poorly in homes and would stop eating but thrived in the shelter, Stickley said. When the dog eventually had unmanageable pain, it was euthanized.
Staff members with concerns approach Stickley, and she talks with the board of directors and a veterinarian before a decision to euthanize is made.
Stickley has considered whether more animals could have been saved by freeing up the kennel but didn’t feel she could put the dog down.
“I personally couldn’t have had that on my conscience,” Stickley said. “I couldn’t have made that decision.”
One out-of-state shelter, Keno’s Animal Sanctuary in Luzerne County, Pa., has been openly critical of Brother Wolf’s search for new homes for the aggressive dogs that have been euthanized.
Brother Wolf reached out to Keno’s in an attempt to find a sanctuary for the dogs, Fieser said. She had a list of standards from her leadership team that a sanctuary would have to meet to satisfy Brother Wolf’s requirements for a good quality of life.
Among her objections to Keno’s was the person-to-animal ratio.
However, Madelena Perelli, secretary and volunteer at Keno’s, told CPP that Brother Wolf told her organization something different – that the cost was a problem.
In the end, Keno’s offered to take the dogs for free but was declined.
While Fieser defended the choice as being in the best interests of the animals, Perelli said the list of standards was “ludicrous.”
“My husband was outraged because she started putting these dogs down,” Perelli said.
”He offered to take them for free, to no avail. She just wanted to kill those dogs.”
Fieser said she would have been willing to send the dogs to a “reputable” shelter that met Brother Wolf’s criteria, but those she checked with were full.
Stickley said while her shelter in Fayetteville would not make the same choice that Brother Wolf has made in Asheville, she couldn’t judge Brother Wolf for making the decision in a “very gray subject.”
“No matter what that woman (Feiser) does as the executive director, somebody’s going to say she’s wrong,” Stickley said.
“Somebody’s going to be upset. They’re shoes that I definitely don’t envy being in.”
You can strengthen independent, in-depth and investigative news for all of North Carolina
Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative and public interest reporting for all North Carolinians.
Unlike many others, we aren’t owned by umbrella organizations or corporations. And we haven’t put up a paywall — we believe that fact-based, context-rich watchdog journalism is a vital public service. But we need your help. Carolina Public Press’ in-depth, investigative and public interest journalism takes a lot of money, persistence and hard work to produce. We are here because we believe in and are dedicated to the future of North Carolina.
So, if you value independent, in-depth and investigative reporting in the public interest for North Carolina, please take a moment to make a tax-deductible contribution. It only takes a minute and makes a huge difference. Thank you!