The (Furry) Angel in the Outfield
A baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees in 1990 was interrupted by some commotion on the field.
A small stray cat stowed away in the stadium reacted to the roaring crowd and ran across the field. The feline was chased until it was safe inside the dugout with Tony La Russa, then-manager of the Athletics.
La Russa is regarded as one of the most successful baseball managers in Major League history, having won 500 games with three teams and winning three World Series. Prior to his managerial success, La Russa played professional baseball himself for 16 years. He currently serves as the Boston Red Sox vice president, special assistant to the president of baseball operations.
Once the baseball hall of fame manager was introduced to the stray cat, La Russa and his wife Elaine were set on finding a home for her. To their surprise, they learned about the absence of no-kill shelters in the East Bay region and that their stray cat “Evie” would likely be euthanized.
The La Russa’s didn’t accept that fate for Evie. They searched for a happy home that would love to take Evie in, and they were successful.
This experience inspired them to create the Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) as a progressive resource for animal welfare.
ARF’s dual mission is, “People Rescuing Animals...Animals Rescuing People,” In 2018 alone, 2,665 cats and dogs were adopted and 1,197 cats and dogs were fostered.
ARF has re-homed over 40,000 dogs and cats saved from public animal shelters, performed more than 40,000 spray and neuter surgeries and provides a number of programs centered around bringing people and animals together.
“If I take [pets] to the shelter they’ll kill them, but if I give them to you, I know they’ll live...I want to make sure these kittens live,” said Elaine.
Since 1991, the foundation has grown from being a rescue and adoption source into being a source of education and enrichment as well. Shortly after its founding, ARF members realized that their organization not only could save animal life, but could make a positive impact on people too.
The Walnut Creek, Calif.-based non-profit organization now offers programs ranging from emotional support and service-dog training programs for military veterans; animal therapy teams who interact with hospital patients, elderly and at-risk students; humane education for all ages and Pet Safety Net programs for families at-risk of surrendering an animal to a shelter.
One of ARF’s focuses in on its Pets and Vets program, which launched in 2011. The nonprofit pairs rescued dogs with veterans in need of a service dog to help support them as they transition back into civilian life. ARF provides the rescued dog and a 10-month training for the pair at no cost to the veteran.
To help accomplish this mission, ARF recently partnered with the American Pet Products Association (APPA). “Rescuing animals and pairing them with veterans, with the support of APPA, this program will go nationwide,” said Elaine.
“We were providing emotional support animals initially, but then our veterans came back and said oh we need more,” said Elaine La Russa. “It’s great to have these dogs but we’re prevented from having them on planes, in our classrooms...so we want full-fledged service dogs, so that we never have to be alone. That’s really what started all of this.”
ARF works with shelters, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and its retail partners. In California, the non-profit’s current retail partner in is Pet Food Express, which provides any additional materials vets need for their shelter dogs free of charge.
“When we start having these other partners, they need retail partners to also supply the goods and services for the dogs at no charge to the veterans in their community,” said Elaine.
One of the biggest challenges facing the ARF mission is the lack of space the nonprofit has to provide its services for veterans, those seeking an emotional support companion and the general public.
“We have the urgency, we have the drive, we have the team. We don’t have the space.”
To address this issue, ARF is working on constructing a Pets and Vets center, which will be the national training facility for service dog and veteran teams.
The nonprofit has come a long way from saving Evie from the baseball field. With ARF’s mission and future plans, it’s slated to save a lot more animals (and people) like Evie in the future.
“87 percent of every dollar goes to directly to the mission,” said Elaine.