Los Angeles pet lovers.
Tony La Russa
By Lori Golden
While baseball is La Russa’s career eight months of the year, during the four months that occupy his off-season, he spends his time managing ARF, the Animal Rescue Foundation he created with his wife Elaine in 1991. Based in Walnut Creek, California, the genesis of ARF began with a stray cat and a baseball game. It was May, 1990, during a game between the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees, when a stray cat wandered onto the playing field. Terrified by the roar of the crowd, the frightened feline ran all over the field, eluding umpires and players alike. Tony finally coaxed the cat into the dugout, made sure it was safe for the rest of the game, then tried placing it with a local shelter. That was when he learned there was not a single No-Kill shelter in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay area. Upon discovering the cat would be euthanized, he and his wife named her Evie and found a loving home for her where she lived out her life to the age of 15.
"I was concerned about the thousands of euthanized animals across the country," says La Russa. "I found out there wasn't enough public money, so starting a private nonprofit to supplement the public efforts was the best solution ."
As life-long animal advocates with a deep concern for the high number of animals abandoned in shelters each year, Tony and Elaine founded ARF. Their goal is to find caring homes for these animals, educate the public about the importance of controlling pet over-population through spay and neuter programs, and put people and animals together to enhance each other's lives.
Tony La Russa didn't even grow up around cats and dogs- his mother had been traumatized after being bitten by a cat and had to endure a painful series of rabies shots. He finally got his first pets more than 25 years ago when he married Elaine- a poodle named Yvette and a cat named Dinkles. It's hard to imagine one of baseball's toughest managers having a cat named Dinkles. But La Russa says, "that was a great cat. I'm as big a cat person as you'll ever come across. I just love them." These days he also shares his home with his two daughters, 4 rescued dogs (Luke and Leia, rescued circus poodles; Res, short for Reservation, found wandering off an Indian Reservation during Spring Training one year; Twiggy, a rescued Chihuahua) and 9 rescued cats.
The truth is, Tony La Russa loves all animals and is passionate about doing all he can to save them. In the beginning ARF started out as a small rescue organization and expanded in 1993 from a grassroots group to a powerful nonprofit corporation."
"I looked at the people who said they didn't want ARF to get any bigger and I said, "if we do that, we're only going to be able to rescue a couple hundred animals a year… can we abide the thousands of others being euthanized?"
Then in 1994 ARF faced another big transition when La Russa suggested it broaden its scope and help seniors and abused children through animal therapy programs. He said that idea came after he went on talk shows and was repeatedly asked- "with all the people problems out there, how can you justify putting all your time and money into animals"
"One of my most exciting days," La Russa said, "was when I got ARF to agree to expand into pet-assisted therapy. Die-hard rescuers just want to help the animals. I even had to convince Elaine about the concept of helping animals and people. I can win anybody over if they just see how the elderly or victims of violence react to the animals. Animals aren't just these pathetic creatures you do favors for by giving them homes. There's so many benefits… especially for kids."
It's one thing to have these lofty ideas about saving animals and creating programs that put animals and people together. It's quite another to actually implement them. But with Tony La Russa at the helm, that's exactly what ARF has been able to accomplish.
During most of his off-season from baseball, basically from mid-October to early February, La Russa spends most of his time doing his least favorite thing- asking celebrities, corporations and people with means for money and favors. It may be for a local fundraiser, or to be part of the Purina Cat and Dog Calendars which draw attention to many of ARF's important programs. Participants lined up for the 2001 Calendars include Lance Armstrong, LeAnn Rimes, Claudia Schiffer, Jimmy Smits and Sarah Jessica Parker, to name a few.
La Russa hates asking these people for favors, but he does it because ARF would not have grown so big so fast without his connections. "I've asked countless players to come to events, entertainers to perform, sponsors to provide food, airplanes, hotels. I ask for money. I ask, ask, ask. I apologize ten times when I talk to someone. My dream is for someone to come up big and get us funded so we'll have an endowment. Then I can be a normal volunteer".
He might hate asking, but so far Tony La Russa's efforts have paid off, with ARF having established a number of innovative programs to help the animals and people in the communities of Contra Costa County. Some of these programs include:
EMF- Emergency Medical Fund - provides services, including veterinary care, for sick and injured animals whose owners are experiencing financial difficulties.
Battered Pet Program - ARF in partnership with a battered women's shelter responds to the needs of women who fear leaving their animal with their batterer. ARF pays the vet bills of animals injured due to domestic violence and cares for these pets until the women can establish a new, safe, stable home.
Best Medicine Program - ARF supports isolated, terminally ill people who are having financial or physical challenges in caring for their pet.
ACT- Animal Connection Therapy Program - ARF brings the healing power of animals to hospitals, senior centers and Alzheimer facilities through social interactions and physical contact of the animals with the patients.
TLC- Teaching Loving Care Program - A ground breaking new collaboration between ARF and 4 Conta Costa County departments: Probation, Mental Health, Animal Services and Education. ARF provides animal assisted therapy to 20 incarcerated women who are dealing with serious emotional and behavioral problems.
One of ARF's mottos, Animals Make Better People, underlines the importance La Russa places on animal-human interaction. " Animals are capable of helping people. It's a very pure concept."
What may take a little more understanding is how this tough, major league baseball manager 8 months of the year can be equally as passionate about his "other career." "Human beings have the ability to change their personalities in different situations," La Russa says. "My baseball job is competition. My survival is linked with competing. I'm not competing with ARF. We're just trying to save animals and help people. I can separate my life from my profession"
It seems to me if the animals could talk, they'd be thanking Tony La Russa for making his passion his life's work, whether it's managing the St. Louis Cardinals, or managing the dedicated team of volunteers and people involved in all the various aspects of ARF. No matter how much he may try to separate the two, they really go hand in hand. Tony La Russa is seeing to that in everything he does. For his amazing efforts on and off the field have helped make ARF's programs possible…. with the goal of "making the world a better place to live, one animal at a time."
(ARF can always use more supporters and donors. If you'd like to contact them, write to them at ARF Animals P.O. Box 30215, Walnut Creek, CA 94598, call them at 800-567-1ARF or visit their website at www.tlr-arf.org )
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