Turning points often come at the most unexpected moments in people's lives. For St. Louis Cardinals skipper Tony La Russa, a turning point occurred during a Monday-night ball game in May 1990, while he was managing the Oakland A's.
As La Russa's team played the New York Yankees, a cat ran onto the field at Oakland Coliseum, bringing the game to a halt. The animal frantically sprinted around the perimeter of the field, trying to escape. As La Russa stepped out of the A's dugout, the cat stopped at his feet. Gently, he nudged the creature into the clubhouse. "I named her Evie, after the wife of the late A's owner Walter Haas, and my life hasn't been the same since," says La Russa.
The next day he put the cat in an animal shelter near his home. "The shelter was overwhelmed with animals," recalls La Russa. He later learned that Evie was scheduled to be put to sleep. After several phone calls, he found temporary housing for the cat. "That's when my wife, Elaine, and I decided there must be something we could do to help other Evies," he says.
Nine months later, the couple started Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF), a nonprofit organization based in Concord, Calif., that's devoted to bringing people and homeless dogs and cats together. One of its first successes was finding a permanent home for Evie.
Unlike the area's public shelters, ARF does not euthanatize unwanted animals. "Tony insisted that ARF be a no-kill operation," says Kathy McCracken, the group's development director. "We find a home for every animal we get." Last year ARF placed more than 1,000 cats and dogs. It also provided low-income county residents with free animal-neutering services and with funds to pay emergency veterinary bills, and it gave away more than 12 tons of food to the pets of needy families.
Between the end of baseball season and the beginning of spring training in February, La Russa is at the organization's offices almost every day. "He does everything from fund-raising to moving office furniture," says ARF executive director Robert N. Anderson. "He's very committed." The group's modest headquarters are located in a nondescript strip mall on one of the main drags in Concord, but the site is too small to house animals. La Russa is raising funds to build a $7 million shelter on six acres in nearby Walnut Creek.
ARF's animals are housed temporarily in any of about 100 foster homes throughout the county. "Talk about superstars, these volunteers are the heart and soul of ARF," says La Russa. Every weekend at a Concord pet store, ARF offers dogs and cats for adoption. "I'm constantly asked why we focus on animals when there are so many people problems in the world," says La Russa. "But part of ARF's mission is to demonstrate how pets help humans."
Last year ARF volunteers conducted more than 150 pet-assisted therapy sessions at children's hospitals, mental-health facilities and homes for seniors. "This kind of therapy is based on research that shows how interaction with animals can lower a person's blood pressure and decrease feelings of isolation and depression," says McCracken, a psychotherapist by training.
La Russa has long had an affinity for animals. "As a kid I desperately wanted to have pets, but my mother was once attacked by a dog," he says. "She was terrified of all animals, so we lived without them." In the years since, the three-time American League Manager of the Year has made up for lost time by bringing home strays. Today, he and his family share their Bay Area house with 10 cats and two dogs.
Before Evie died, in 1995 at the age of 15, she lived with Diana Gale, a schoolteacher in Contra Costa County. "Being at Oakland Coliseum left an impression on Evie," says Gale. "When she would hear the noise of a televised ball game, she would sit up and stare intently at my TV screen."