Elaine La Russa Paw Prints in Her Heart, Rock N' Roll in Her Soul

March 4, 2010 

Angela Roewe

Elaine LaRussa has stars in her eyes, and it's not for baseball.

Passion fills her voice as she talks about the facets of her life that define who she is- family, animals, dance, and music.

Originally from Virginia, she grew up spending much of her time on both sets of grandparents' farms, helping feed and care for the animals. Very often, Elaine could be found just lying in the pastures watching them graze and sleep, giving her peace. She wasn't aware of her calling to save animals until years later, but she says that's when her love of creatures began.

Working as a flight attendant for 19 years, she was able to travel the world, but grew tired of never having her feet planted anywhere for longer than a few days. She also dreaded leaving her pets in others' care until she returned home.

When Elaine felt it was time to call it quits, she stumbled upon a job at an upscale restaurant in Richmond, Va., where she met Tony LaRussa, now St. Louis Cardinals Baseball manager.

"Tony came into town with his ball team and brought them to the place where I worked for dinner," she said. "No one was really in the restaurant that evening, and he asked to be moved to my section and that's when we met. He called a few times, but I didn't take him very seriously. Eventually, I agreed to go on a date with him."

The couple married two years after their first date - 35 years ago. She instantly became a professional athlete's wife, moving from city to city, attending games nightly. Then, the babies began coming - daughter Devon, followed by daughter Bianca, and many pets in between.

"Sometimes we moved every three to five months - where spring training was, where the season was, and for Tony to attend law school," she said. "It was then time to establish our roots for our children in California. I stopped traveling with Tony because my full-time job was our children and their well-being. I just learned how to balance it all on my own because Tony had his job to do, and baseball is his calling and passion."

Although Elaine had the drive to help as many innocent, unwanted animals as possible, she kept that strong desire at bay, rescuing them when she stumbled upon them and sending donations to shelters, it still wasn't enough to satisfy her soul.

She became a vegetarian before their adult daughters were born after watching a PBS documentary in a vegetarian special, "From Pasteur to Table," She said the documentary was so haunting, it is still etched in her mind more than three decades later.

"It was right after we were married and I was watching, thinking this is real - the horror these animals were destined to succumb to - slaughtered for us to eat. The pain, the loss of life, it was unreal. I sat there on the couch and cried. I said to myself, 'I will never be a part of this again,' and I haven't been. I do things cold tofu, as I say, so I threw out any animal-based food product in the house and made a vow, and never looked back.

"Eating is nothing more than a habit. If you are committed, you can change. I did it all for ethical reasons, not to look better or feel better, but that happened, too. Although, I think I have more energy than my daughters' friends now because I am a vegetarian."

She breastfed two babies for years on a vegan diet, and changed her family's eating habits. She said she wasn't sure how Tony would react to the change, but he was up to trying it.

"I announced to him that I would never buy or cook meat for him again, and he said 'OK'," she said. "He's been a vegetarian right along with me."

It was years later, in 1990, when the couple founded ARF. The LaRussas were combining three homes into one, and had an excess of rugs, blankets, etc. that she wanted to go to an animal rescue group. Elaine was appalled at the responses her phone calls yielded.

"All had excuses for taking the stuff and reusing it," she said. "They said they could use it once and throw it away, and I thought, 'They'd rather let these animals lie on a cold concrete floor than wash and reuse items.'

"I was shocked. At one point, I offered one a washer and dryer and they said their building couldn't handle any more electrical equipment. That's when I threw my hands up and said, 'If no one will do it, then I will.'"

But, she wasn't sure how, so there the couple sat thinking about where to begin. Then, a second sign soon appeared.

The final catalyst for Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation came in May 1990 during a baseball game between the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees when a stray cat wandered onto the field. Terrified by the roar of the crowd, the feline dashed about eluding umpires and players. Tony, then the manager of the Oakland A's, coaxed the cat into the dugout, secured its safety for the remainder of the game, then took responsibility for placing it with a local shelter.

The couple then discovered there was not a single No-Kill facility in the East Bay region of the San Francisco Bay Area. When Tony learned the cat would be euthanized, he and Elaine, named her "Evie" and found a home for her where she no longer had to live off peanuts and crackerjacks found under stadium seating.

Their goal with ARF was to find caring homes for animals and educate the public about the importance of controlling pet over-population through spay and neuter programs. Since then, ARF's mission has been expanded to include many outreach programs. It is only through a comprehensive approach that includes public education, early spay/neuter, and community involvement that ARF will achieve Tony and Elaine's ultimate vision of no more homeless, unwanted pets.

Tony always liked animals, but never had a pet until he and Elaine married.

"He was raised by a single mother, she was scared of them and didn't allow any animals in the house," Elaine said.

"But, he became extremely attached to the ones he acquired once we married and would have a whole house full if it were allowed by law."

Jokingly, she adds, "I think he only married me because I had pets. He was like a kid in a candy store."

The LaRussas had always been staunch supporters of animal rescue groups, including PETA. Even when they had little resources, while Tony was in law school, Elaine said they stashed money away to send in.

"At one time, we were dirt poor - a law book cost more than a month worth's of food," she said. "We still donated. That was very important to me. I bought my jeans at K-Mart, etc., and did what I could to make ends meet while contributing to a cause we believe in."

She admits to being more of a "cat person," and says Tony is the "dog" person in the house.

"All in all, they are special," she said. "Animals are the diary of our lives. One tends to categorize their life according to the animals they had or have. They give you so many gifts that a human can't - unconditional love, loyalty, and a shoulder to lean on when no one else is around."

When Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation began, it was something Elaine put countless hours into - setting up, promoting, finding volunteers and staff members, and raising funds for.

"I know I'm just one person, as we all are, and I know I can't change the whole world by myself, but I can deal with myself," she said. "If you slowly change yourself maybe others will follow in that cause. ARF is our way of making a difference."

Now that ARF is off the ground with day-to-day operations running smoothly, Elaine is focusing more on her other passions, especially their daughters, and music.

A hard core heavy metal music fan, she travels frequently to attend shows across the country to see her favorites - KISS, Metallica, Black Eyed Peas, Guns 'n Roses, Iron Maiden, and other groups, including California Symphonies, Journey, Yanni, and more. She also giggles about playing Rock Band video games at home.

She said all women earn the right to have fun on their own terms.

"We learn to prioritize during our busy years, especially during the years our children are thriving because after all, our babies are all we really have. If we don't do right by them, then who can we do right for? We live for them.

"We work hard raising our kids, and supporting our husbands, while being involved in so many causes during those years - the man's business, schools, and community causes. But, there comes a time when we need to focus on ourselves.

"I urge all women to step back every so often to see if they are really happy where they are. Be yourself - your own woman, but don't spread yourself thin. Don't focus on quantity, but quality. If you think about that, and see that quantity has ahold of you now, then you're doing too much for everyone else and not enough for yourself. Change that now, or regret it later."

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