Rooted In Baseball, This Shelter Aims to Keep Pets Safe at Home

All it takes is one to make a change. 

Back in 1990, a cat strayed onto the field at the Oakland Coliseum during a game between the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees. The Oakland's manager, Tony La Russa, helped contain the cat in the clubhouse until the game was over. He then personally set out to find a shelter that would accept the cat.

What he discovered shocked him: not a single shelter in the Bay Area could guarantee the cat would be adopted.

He decided to change that.

A year later, Tony and his wife, Elaine, launched Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) in Walnut Creek, California. ARF is dedicated to bringing people and animals together to enrich each other's lives, and ultimately, build a community without any homeless or unwanted pets.

The foundation began modestly; a thrift store was opened to fund its efforts, and a dozen cats were displayed in cages in the storefront to raise awareness and drive adoptions.

Twenty years later, ARF has grown into a model operation for shelters across the country and the world.

Its calling card? Innovative design and thinking. Rather than a cage, each animal has its own "condo." Skylights and glass windows let in natural light. Beds are elevated and the condo is "furnished" to make it easier for guests to envision the animal in their home.

"It's a world class facility," said ARF's Executive Director Elena Bicker. "We're set up to showcase the animals and elevate their status in society."

Bicker knows firsthand how gratifying the efforts can be. After becoming involved as a puppy foster parent and volunteer, she took a sabbatical from her professional life in management at a Fortune 100 corporation to devote her energies to the shelter for a year. She never went back.

 "Every day you make a difference … there's an animal out there that just needs someone to be its voice."

At peak capacity, the facility will house 200 animals at the shelter, with 50-80 more in foster care. 

ARF has recently taken in a litter of puppies found at a landfill and an injured cat that was discovered inside a box abandoned at a mass transit station. But ARF usually pulls animals from public facilities.

In addition to the shelter and offices, the facility is home to a veterinary clinic, an agility field for exercising the dogs, and the thrift store that started it all. Money raised there helps to pay for veterinary care for low-income families in the area.

While the focus is, ultimately, on the animals, one can't overlook the human element. The foundation has established educational programs for children as young as first graders. And a legion of 275 teen and 550 adult volunteers helps make the shelter run by providing care, play and exercise for the animals.

No matter what age people are when they get involved, they develop experience and knowledge they'll use for a lifetime, especially the values of a spay and neuter program.

And last year, ARF's team of therapy animals touched the lives of 72,000 people while on visits to local pediatric wards, assisted living facilities and drug and alcohol units.

So whether your experience with ARF begins with an adoption, education or outreach, it's bound to have an impact on more than one life. And that's well worth the effort, says Bicker.

"When you watch a little girl who's seeing a kitten for the first time, and she jumps up and down, so full of love… To know she can take that kitten home makes it an incredible experience."