ANIMAL CHARITY Group discovers its own angels

A $400,000 donation from a local couple is helping Angels for Animals build a new home.
GREENFORD -- Through the eyes of Diane Less Baird, mounds of insulation and drywall, plus the occasional piece of heavy machinery, simply melt away.
In their place are the sounds and smells of the animal kingdom. Baird is listening for the woofs and meows of stray pets, and smelling the aroma of kitty litter and puppy chow flitting past her nostrils.
Upon Baird's gaze, a room stacked with isolation kennels for wayward pups is transformed into a library, and the basement at the site of a former slaughterhouse becomes kitty heaven, complete with a 24-foot brick-colored "tree" bundled in two miles of rope.
This is Baird's vision of a sanctuary for "recycled pets," as she terms them -- domesticated animals on their second chance at life.
Those at Angels for Animals just call it Angel Place.
Granted, the organization's new building, 4750 state Route 165, is a maze of sawdust, wiring and empty donut boxes. But watch Baird's face, just for a moment.
Passion: Her eyes light up at the sight of any animal, and flash in anger as she describes their agonizing deaths as a result of overpopulation. Baird's gestures stiffen and widen; her braided ponytail, brown with a splash of gray, bobs wildly.
Baird, the president of the 11-year-old organization, is determined to defend each creature here from the cruelties of humankind, and to do it in a state-of-the-art facility that can both care for and spay and neuter the strays.
Luckily, she's had a little help.
It is a gray July day that has cleared to blue; Baird is leading a tour of the state Route 165 Angels complex, which is to open in the fall. Trailing her are Polly Wardle, Angels' vice president, plus Tony and Mary Lariccia and their 15-year-old daughter, Dana.
The Lariccias, of Boardman, are taken aback as Baird informs them this shell of a building will be named the Lariccia Animal Shelter.
"No, no, no, we don't want that," protested Tony Lariccia, a stockbroker at Merrill Lynch.
"That's crazy," said Dana, shaking her head while standing next to her mother, a homemaker.
"Why?" said Baird, with a loud laugh. "You guys paid for it."
The nonprofit Angels organization has raised the $1.5 million it took to build the complex -- the site of the former Bort Packing Co. -- through a series of fund-raisers since 1999. The Lariccias have donated about $400,000.
Mary Lariccia said she was drawn to Baird's determination and feistiness when Dana, then in first grade, toured a makeshift shelter Baird and Wardle set up in a barn. In 1994, the pair renovated a chicken coop, which will be turned into a dog kennel when the new complex opens.
The reconditioned coop, at 6081 Green Valley Drive, is about a 10-minute drive from the new gray structure, which is trimmed with blue and impressive in its expansiveness.
Other features: Besides the 13,000-square-foot Lariccia building, which will house the kennels, library and cat tree next to a 15-acre dog park, there will be the 5,000-square-foot Andrews Education Hall, with meeting rooms and a kitchen. For now, it's surrounded by gravel, puddles and a trailer that serves as Angels' on-site office.
That matters little to Mary Lariccia, who was all smiles as she recalled Baird drenched in flour at their first meeting. Baird was baking pies; Mary Lariccia offered her services at the shelter.
After taking in four felines, Mary Lariccia had to quit before her home was overrun with cats. Cecil, Sweet Pea, Nala and Big George, who later was given away, "were beckoning me, saying, 'Please, take me.'"
So she promised monetary support instead, inspired by the 200-plus Angels volunteers.
Mary Lariccia said the volunteers "consider this more cleansing than an hour in church ... They do this religiously, come rain, snow, whatever."
She drew her husband in as well, citing the Angels group as her and Tony's favorite charity.
"She got me to love four-legged creatures, sometimes more than two-legged ones," Tony Lariccia said, laughing.
So the group walks farther, scanning the walls, which are readied for 25 to 30 dogs with inside and outside pens. They tour the basement, where sea- and circus-themed rooms await 100 to 150 cats, with the giant tree standing in the next room.
Baird is visibly excited, and her enthusiasm sweeps through the rest of the group.
"My heart has to be where their blood, sweat and tears are," Mary Lariccia said, gesturing toward Baird.
Baird nods back, smiling.
She knows the Lariccias are devoted to helping her cause: When they view the building, they don't see the plaster and yellow insulation.
They hear and smell the shelter through her eyes.

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