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Taking Rescue to the Next Level
David Backes, NHL star launches Athletes for Animals

Stereotypes are hard to break. Mention hockey players and some picture battle-scarred faces and toothless grins. Mention shelter dogs and some assume that something has to be wrong with a dog for it to land in a shelter. David Backes, captain of the National Hockey League’s St. Louis Blues, is out to prove both of those stereotypes wrong.

Backes, a veteran of almost 500 NHL games, is a tireless supporter of animal rescue, something he first got a taste of as a young boy when his family took in a small Poodle a neighbor no longer wanted. With that seed planted early in his life, Backes’ interest in animal rescue truly took hold when he and his wife Kelly were students at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and began volunteering at a local shelter.

When the couple moved to St. Louis, Mo., to be part of the Blues organization in 2007, they looked for ways to become involved in the community, and found Five Acres Animal Shelter in St. Charles. During the time they’ve been with the shelter, they’ve worked on a number of projects, including a $1 million capital campaign that financed the construction of two new buildings. Recently, Kelly and David stepped away from their duties on the Five Acres’ board to concentrate on the next step: the formation of their own rescue organization.

As David says, “We’re going to try and use the story that Kelly and I have with Five Acres Animal Shelter to get players in all four major sports and in cities around the U.S. to use that template to start that good work.”

The good work that David mentions will begin with education and networking. “What we’re trying to do is educate the public on animal adoption and the truth about what goes on with the three to four million animals who are euthanized in shelters every year because of overpopulation, and the lack of spay and neuter,” he says.

Eventually, the work will go beyond public education to helping rescue organizations function together in a focused manner. As David describes it, “We want to network with organizations, to get everyone together so we’re all pulling the same rope, instead of having parallel organizations doing the same thing—doing double the work.”

David and Kelly walk their talk; their companion animals—cats Sunny and Polly, and dogs Marty, Rosey and BB— are all rescues. And after Kelly found a stray dog on the side of the road, things were much more crowded for a time. As David recalls, “We took her to the vet, and she had 12 puppies on board. Teammates D.J. King, Barret Jackman and I finished off a corner of our basement and built a little whelping box [for her]. Kelly and I fostered the 12 puppies until we could find them and their mom homes. We had quite a menagerie at the time.”

The NHL season runs from September through June and is bookended by training camp and the Stanley Cup playoffs, which doesn’t leave David with much downtime. Nonetheless, he dedicates most of it to rescue, and he’s quick to point out that Kelly is a huge part of the endeavor, responsible for the bulk of the day-to-day legwork.

The couple’s involvement with rescue is clearly something they are very passionate about, but David knows they face an uphill battle with the public at large in breaking the stereotype of shelter animals. “I think there’s a negative perception that they are damaged or thrown-away products,” he says. “These animals are amazing; there’s nothing wrong with them other than that they are in a shelter, and they need a home.

“If people knew that these animals are just like the dog they have in their back yard, [and are] being euthanized only because there’s no room for them, I think that starts to hit home pretty hard. [Ideally], they’ll think twice before breeding their animals, and they’ll get them spayed or neutered.”

The couple recently celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary by visiting two rescue organizations, the Gentle Barn in Santa Clarita, Calif., and Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah. As David tells it, he and his wife wanted to see the great work the two organizations are doing as inspiration for their own efforts. And, of course, they wanted to volunteer.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 77: Spring 2014

Image courtesy Sarah Beth Photography(outdoors); Mark Buckner (indoors);

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