When a pet or its owner is at the end of their rope, Wanda Bittner wants to be their angel.
Whether it’s a dog owner desperately searching for a lost pet or dogs left to starve inside an abandoned house, Bittner is pretty sure she can help.
“I believe in angels. They live with me. And they take care of the animals, because they are God’s creatures,” said Bittner, who founded Animal Rescue and Adoption in Yelm 27 years ago. Knowing she can’t live forever, Bittner is looking for ways to ensure the no-kill shelter will continue to operate for years to come.
The private shelter in the Nisqually Pines development helps hundreds of families every month with free dog food, financial assistance with emergency medical bills, the rescue of unwanted animals, and reuniting owners with their lost pets. The 85-year-old Bittner, a former Boeing executive secretary and past owner of several businesses, oversees the finances and daily operation of the shelter with the assistance of two part-time paid workers.
Reuniting a lost pet with its owners gives Bittner her greatest satisfaction.
“I don’t know how it works, but I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of dogs found by my angels,” she said.
Those angels are people such as the unnamed man who called her to say he saw a pair of dogs running loose near the Nisqually Reservation. Even though he couldn’t catch the dogs, Bittner asked him to go back and wait nearby until the owner could arrive. He did, and the family was reunited with their beloved pets.
Another angel is a woman in Tacoma who asked to remain anonymous. She has sent the rescue a $100 check every month since 1997. In between, she has included the occasional check for $1,000 or $2,000.
“Wanda operates on a shoestring, and she needs the help,” the woman said. “It’s a really neat thing that she does.”
The rescue organization meets its expenses solely through those donations of money, pet food and supplies. Walmart in Yelm and WinCo Foods in Lacey donate broken bags of pet food and treats. When finances are running thin, Bittner said she turns to prayer.
There’s little that Bittner won’t do to save an animal. When three dogs were left inside a locked and abandoned house, she tried to get the home opened legally, but grew frustrated and eventually crawled in an open window to save the dogs. A sheriff’s deputy told her that she could have been arrested for burglary.
“I told him to go ahead and arrest me,” Bittner says. “An 85-year-old lady arrested for saving starving dogs. I’m sure the media would have a field day with that.”
Bittner’s fighting spirit is also seen in her winning battles over multiple forms of cancer — twice. She was recently diagnosed with bladder cancer for a third time. Having already been through chemotherapy, radiation and surgeries, there is little treatment the doctors can do at this point, she said. She knows she won’t be around forever.
So Bittner has incorporated the charity to keep it running when she’s no longer able. She’s brought together a board of directors, and the organization purchased the land where she lives, with a perpetual registration for the shelter.
“I’ve left a legacy so these animals will still be taken care of after I’m gone,” Bittner said. “I’m very proud of that.”
“We definitely want to continue the work that Wanda has started,” said board vice president Bo Foster of Rainier, who met Bittner in 1998 when she helped save Foster’s troubled litter of Pomeranian puppies. Bittner invited Foster and her dogs to live at her home during the week of emergency care.
“Wanda bottle-fed the puppies goats’ milk. They were so tiny, they looked like mice. She taught me how to take care of them. She saved their lives,” Foster said Thursday from her home as one of those puppies, 16-year-old Joy, lay snuggling at her feet.
“If Wanda ever needs my help, I’ll always be there,” Foster said.
“Wanda has an insanely big heart,” said Susanne Beauregard, director of Thurston County Animal Services, who has known Bittner for nearly 25 years.
PRIVATE SHELTERS HELP
Privately operated rescues play an “enormous role” in helping manage Washington’s pet population problems by taking pressure off of already overburdened public shelters, Beauregard said. However, there are presently no standards for shelters in Washington, something she finds “patently frightening.” Anyone can call themselves a shelter, and without a complaint, the conditions and treatment of the animals and their final destination can go unchecked.
Running a shelter is expensive; operators take on heavy liability and around-the-clock demands and are often dealing with animals that no one else wants because of behavior troubles or chronic medical problems.
Rescue is an inherent part of an empathetic person, Beauregard said, but it’s also a calling that can become overwhelming.
“It takes a tremendously caring person with a huge heart to devote a huge chunk of their life to do something that they feel is important,” Beauregard said. “Add to that a person who can’t say no and you can have a case that goes nuclear.”
Last December, the no-kill Olympic Animal Sanctuary in Forks closed after critics protested the treatment of 124 nonadoptable dogs kept in a warehouse. They were eventually trucked to Arizona, where another rescue group has been working to find shelters to take the dogs.
Rescue shelters, Beauregard said, can become a “thin veneer applied to hoarding.”
Even Bittner has had cockatiels and dozens of rabbits seized from her shelter by Animal Services after their numbers became unmanageable, Beauregard said. But she said Bittner’s shelter is clean, and the animals are well cared for when the numbers are kept under control.
“Anything the Lord created that we can save, we do,” Bittner said. “The only thing we kill here is rats and mice.”
EMPATHY FOR ORPHANS
Bittner acknowledges she has a hard time turning away any animal that is lost and alone. At the age of seven months, Bittner said, she was dropped off at an orphanage after social workers found her alone in an empty New York City apartment, chewing on a piece of coal. She spent the Depression years in dozens of foster homes and orphanages, where she learned she has a special connection with animals.
“The dogs get shoved from here to there,” Bittner said. “I think that’s why we communicate so well.”
Her first job was in a veterinary clinic. She married, had a daughter, then later divorced. She landed a job as a tool clerk at Boeing and quickly became executive secretary to a vice president. She remarried, co-owned a nursing home and operated two restaurants: Bob’s Pizza and Seafood in South Bend and Wanda’s Miracle Inn in Elma.
She was a pioneer in the video rental business, eventually owning seven stores along the Washington coast. And she raised Pomeranian show dogs, winning two national championships with Primo’s Black Magic in 1982 and 1983.
She’s battled three forms of cancer on two different occasions, including an unexplained disappearance of liver cancer, an outcome that she credits to prayer.
“I’ve promised God that I would take care of the animals,” she said. “This is his work.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Address: Animal Rescue and Adoption
P.O. Box 1184
Yelm, WA 98597