Photo: Athletes for Animals

Photo: Athletes for Animals


By Lilly Kashishian

You know the feeling. Your heart is rapidly pounding and a rush of energy jolts through your bones. Most refer to it as an adrenaline rush, but in the animal rescuer’s world, they call it the ‘rescuers high.’

David Backes of the Boston Bruins, and his wife, Kelly, turned their rescuers high into something greater in 2012 when they founded Athletes for Animals.

The Backes Family started the organization in an effort to combine their love for animals and their connections with other professional athletes. Throughout David and Kelly’s time in St. Louis, where David played for the Blues, they saw several animal welfare agencies struggling as they tried to spread awareness for homeless animals.

According to the ASPCA, there are 7.6 million companion animals that enter shelters around the United States. About 3.9 million of those are dogs and 3.4 million are cats.

“Our overall goal for Athletes for Animals was really a broadened awareness” David said. “As we saw the animal welfare agencies in St. Louis struggling to spread awareness, we realized that a bigger social change was needed.”

The Beginning

For David and Kelly, the idea originated with a passion for philanthropy and their undeniable love for animals.

“We’ve enjoyed helping companion animals in whatever capacity we’ve been able to, and it felt like the next natural progression in our life” David said. “We even have four rescue dogs and two rescue cats.”

David and Kelly began to fill out paperwork, and worked with lawyers and other professionals to get things established. A while later, a new chapter emerged.
“We got our status from the government and we’ve been helping out animals ever since” David said. “It’s not necessarily what we envisioned we’d be doing, but it’s a welcome change, and the foundation has been successful in the short time we’ve been in existence.”

Athlete Ambassadors

Photo: Athletes for Animals/Instagram

Photo: Athletes for Animals

The cause has become known in a rather organic, word-of-mouth way — from one professional athlete to another.

“We’ve had a lot of athletes reach out to us to see how we can help them, or how they can help us to be efficient in helping more animals“ David said. “Ultimately, we want to end the homelessness of animals across the country”

These outreaches from other professional athletes led to the formation of the Athlete Ambassador program.

Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, former MLB pitcher Mark Buehrle, and NFL player Tim Barnes, are just a few of the Athlete Ambassadors.

To be an ambassador doesn’t require a lot on the athlete’s part, but David and Kelly want the connection to be right.

“We ask fellow athletes to lend their voice to pledge” David said. “All they have to do is project their voice, speak up, and use the platforms they have with their social following.”

As the Athlete Ambassador program continues to grow, David and Kelly see potential to expand on the program; to use athletes as a way to impact the next generation. In the next five years, a junior ambassador affiliate may be produced. This program within Athletes for Animals would focus on professional athletes and their influence on the younger generation.

“That’s where David and I really envision the awareness and social change occurring” Kelly said. “Now that we have a daughter, I think teaching her compassion, and letting her see that being kind to animals is important because we are all beings that have feelings and emotions.”


Athletes for Animals offers grants to organizations to further support the cause. In order to receive a grant, organizations must have innovative approaches to combat homelessness.

“Our organization is 100 percent volunteer based and mainly funded by David and I, or other generous athletes” Kelly said. “Anything that comes in from the public goes right back out, so we’re very careful to make sure all the funding that goes to organizations is approached in a way that we can measure their goals.”

These goals range anywhere from mega adoption events and different community welfare initiatives to starting a new expansion program. Part of the process that organizations must go through when applying for the grant is having to submit a 990 form. This form allows Athletes for Animals to see the breakdown and factors which effect their decision to fund or not to fund that specific organization.

Photo: Athletes for Animals

Photo: Athletes for Animals

Open Doors

Over this past summer, David signed a contract with the Boston Bruins. Within days of signing, he began making Athletes for Animals presence known in Beantown.

“We’ve already started networking through interactions with people everywhere we travel,” David said. “Being in a new city and having new teammates, we have an opportunity to find a new market to tell our story,” David said.

However, even with the move to Boston, Athletes for Animals will still be based out of St. Louis.

“From the start, Athletes for Animals has been a nationwide charity” Kelly said. “It was just founded in St. Louis because that’s where we’ve lived for the past 10 years. In the three-and-a-half years we’ve been in existence, Athletes for Animals has funded over $250,000 in grants to a variety of animal welfare agencies across the United States and Canada.”

Challenge Accepted

Anything worth doing in life is a challenge and Athletes for Animals opens their arms to any test. The Backeses realize that an athlete’s time is valuable and it will take effort to continue to form and maintain these relationships, but it’s nothing they haven’t been through before.

“As a whole, whether it’s a full commitment, or just somebody that is willing to help and speak out for animals, we’re still trying to fine tune the organization. That’s going to be a forever process in continuing to grow and get better” David said.

So, the adventure continues in Boston, and so does their next rescuers high.