I stepped away from animal rescue some time ago but news like this really catches my attention.
The La Russa family has made incredible contributions to animal rescue for decades. I personally know of a small rescue in Southeast Missouri that they helped keep afloat more than once.
Animal rescue is dog-eat-dog in every sense you can imagine and a hard mission to stay with for such long periods of time. It’s not just the suffering you see, it’s the outlandish people you have to deal with, day in and day out, that are ultimately the proverbial straw. When those people are popping up in your own ranks, there is a serious problem.
For the La Russa’s to step away from their own foundation because of management, speaks volumes.
Check out the article below. Lawsuits and all.
WALNUT CREEK — The Animal Rescue Foundation, the venerable Bay Area animal welfare nonprofit co-founded by Tony La Russa, is in turmoil after the baseball legend and his family announced they were resigning and stepping away from the organization amid allegations that its leadership has long subjected employees to “a toxic” workplace that included abusive and retaliatory behavior.
The stunning announcement that former Oakland A’s manager La Russa had resigned from the board of his eponymous, three-decade-old organization, came in a statement posted to social media Saturday night and signed by his wife and daughter, Elaine La Russa and Bianca La Russa. The announcement did not specify the family’s concerns, but only said they had “collectively concluded that we cannot support or participate in ARF’s current leadership.”
“It is with the utmost sadness that we decided to join with Tony, and formally resign from the Tony La Russa’s Animal Rescue Foundation Board of Directors,” the statement said.
“We hope that our withdrawal from the board and organization will prompt renewed focus on careful stewardship of the foundation and its mission,” the statement continued. “Until we see significant change, we are stepping away from ARF and will dedicate our passion, time and resources to aid other animal welfare organizations. We remain hopeful that with meaningful changes, ARF can return to the mission and ideas upon which our family founded it 30 years ago.”
In a brief message Sunday night, Bianca La Russa said this move was “not taken lightly” by her family, which is based in Alamo. She said the family had tried to resolve their concerns internally for nine months.
Orinda attorney Mark Venardi contacted this news organization Monday to say his firm represents four employees, including ARF’s former human resources manager, who allege that “those in charge started to run the organization like a personal fiefdom at the expense of its loyal and dedicated employees.”
The human resources manager filed a lawsuit in December 2020, alleging she was wrongfully terminated “for insisting on a full, complete and fair investigation of complaints of discrimination and retaliation from dozens of current and past employees,” said Venardi.
ARF “retaliated against and rooted out employees at all levels who attempted to have the organization do the right things for the right reasons,” said Venardi, who said his clients continue to strongly support the mission of ARF.
A June 15, 2020 letter from employees, addressed to La Russa and ARF’s board of directors, alleged that longtime executive director Elena Bicker had failed to act on employees’ complaints, while engaging in bullying and retaliatory behavior herself. Bicker did not respond Monday to repeated attempts to contact her by phone or email.
Erin Thompson, ARF’s marketing manager, said in an email that the organization denies the toxic and abusive workplace allegations and “will not comment further on pending litigation.”
As of Monday morning, the 76-year-old La Russa — who came out of retirement last year to manage the Chicago White Sox — was still listed on ARF’s website as the chairman of the group’s board of directors, but Elaine and Bianca La Russa’s names were no longer listed.
Danville attorney Greg McCoy, board president, said the board has “reserved the chairmanship for Tony.” In a statement, McCoy did not address the La Russa family’s resignations and concerns about the current leadership. He only said that La Russa had stepped back from his day-to-day role at the foundation to concentrate on his new role as the Chicago White Sox manager.
“As a board, we are enthusiastic about the number of pets who have found homes through ARF and organizations across the country during the past difficult year,” McCoy said. “We remain dedicated to continuing and building upon the foundation’s incredible work saving animals and offering innovative programs for pets and people, consistent with the foundation’s last 30 years.”
As McCoy referenced, ARF was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. It had to “scale back operations” and reduce staff after the state and county issued shelter-in-place orders in March 2020, Thompson said, and the organization’s leadership worked for free or reduced pay.
Employees have said that up to a third of ARF’s some 100 employees were laid off several days after the the lockdown was ordered. Meawhile, the organization reconfigured its adoption program to occur virtually, as it fielded a sharp increase in the number of people who wanted to adopt pets during the pandemic, according to its 2019-2020 annual report.
Former employee Laura Jean Skiles said she left ARF on good terms in May 2020 after working in its community programs department for four years. But she said she was aware of co-workers who complained about poor treatment. “It was a pretty toxic culture,” she said. She emphasized the toxic culture never affected the care of the animals, because staff “care so deeply about their welfare.”
ARF’s origin story helped grow it into a mainstay of the East Bay nonprofit community. The La Russa family founded the organization after a stray cat wandered onto the playing field during a 1990 game between the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees. After then-manager La Russa and his wife learned the cat would likely be euthanized because the East Bay didn’t have a no-kill shelter, they established an organization to rescue dogs and cats from high-kill shelters and help them be adopted into loving homes.
With the backing of dedicated volunteers and famous friends in sports and entertainment, who helped with annual fundraisers like its annual Stars to the Rescue, ARF grew into a preeminent Bay Area animal welfare nonprofit. It operates out of a gleaming animal shelter, veterinary hospital and community center in Walnut Creek.
In 2019, Tony and Elaine La Russa, Bicker and McCoy joined other ARF board members, staff and supporters for the launch of its Pets for Vets program, with the groundbreaking for a massive facilities expansion. At the time, La Russa had been retired from baseball since 2011 and was volunteering up to 25 hours a week, according to the organizations 2018 990 IRS financial disclosure form.