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Chase and Jen Utley were forever changed when they saw first-hand the harm humans can do to animals. Now the celebrity couple is stepping up to the plate to make the world a better place…for all the creatures that live here.

It’s been almost three years since Jen Utley first came face-to-face with the true horror of it all. Three years since she first entered that “dark place” and saw the sinister potential for humans to inflict such senseless suffering upon creatures so defenseless and undeserving. It was nothing like she could have expected. It was worse. Far worse. But despite its severity – or, rather, because of it – Jen Utley hasn’t been able to look away from the horror ever since.

The journey that would come to define a significant portion of her life began peacefully enough. In 2006, Jen’s husband Chase had already begun in his meteoric rise to the heights of success and celebrity as one of the Philadelphia Phillies’ most enviable starters. Thrilled though she was to see him gaining such acclaim, Jen wasn’t content to simply sit at home and ride the wave of her husband’s triumphs. She wanted to contribute. She wanted to dedicate her time and passion to something wholly her own. She wanted, as she says, “to make Philadelphia my home.”

“For the first few years he was with the Phillies, I traveled a lot with Chase,” recalls Jen from a rented home in San Francisco, where she and her husband spent this most recent offseason. “But he was very busy with baseball, and I was sort of trying to find my own way.”

As a life-long pet owner and animal devotee, Jen decided that her way might be found at the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSPCA). She started volunteering her time there and the organization, understandably, was thrilled to have her on board. With a name like Utley – combined with her obviously genuine dedication to the cause – Jen’s contribution to the non-profit was not to be underestimated.

“When I first started volunteering, I got a lot of attention because of who I was married to. They asked me to help with the shelter and even asked me to be on the board, which I was happy to do,” says Jen. “But it wasn’t until one specific day that everything really changed.”

That was the day Jen met Etana, a young boxer-mix who was brought into the PSPCA’s Philadelphia headquarters one afternoon in August of 2008. And suddenly, there it was. The horror.

Etana, Jen would come to learn, had been set on fire. A group of teenagers – their motive unknown – had tortured the dog for several hours, beating her before burning her so badly that she was almost unrecognizable, barely clinging to life. Under most circumstances, Etana would not have survived. The sad reality of the matter is that the PSPCA receives far too many animals in need of significant and expensive veterinary care to treat them all, and many have to be euthanized.

But Jen wasn’t going to let that happen to Etana. She had been blessed with a unique position in life, and she was going to use that position to make a difference. She and Chase immediately stepped up to foot the bill for Etana’s exhaustive veterinary bills, which eventually nursed the battered pup back to life and helped her find a permanent and loving home.

But the close of Etana’ story – with its happy, heartwarming end – was only the beginning of Jen and Chase Utley’s narrative in the harsh world of animal cruelty. From that moment on, everything changed for the young couple. They had a new mission together.

“Once we got into it, we realized that it’s very hard to look away,” says Jen. “We started asking questions and got too many horrible answers. And that was what started it all.”

Chase recalls that first exhausting year of Jen’s work with the PSPCA quite vividly. He says she would often come home emotionally drained by the horrors, which she was now witnessing on a daily basis, unable to wrap her mind around not only the problem, but the solution as well. It all seemed so immense. So overwhelming.

“Every other day she came home with a story about an abused animal,” says Chase. “Beaten, neglected, abused. You name it and she saw it. She had these horror stories and it started to affect her more and more. That’s when we realized we could really make a difference. Obviously we’re not going to fix the whole problem, but we’re working in the right direction.”

Bearing witness to his wife’s immediate and visceral reaction to such savagery made Chase’s heart equally heavy. Growing up in Southern California, Chase’s life had also been filled with the presence and joy of animals. Dogs. Birds. Rabbits. Iguanas. You name it. It was just as impossible for him to look away from the problem of animals suffering so needlessly at the hands of humans. Moreover, Chase says he had been yearning for some time to transform his baseball fame into an effort that would have a positive impact on the world.

“Playing professional baseball is a great opportunity, and I knew that at some point I wanted to make a difference myself,” says Chase. “Having that love for animals, that connection to them, I knew I wanted to try and make a difference in that category. Obviously Jen has a lot more time on her hands than I do during the year, but we’ve worked well together in trying to make a difference.”

To hear them tell this tale is to realize that Jen and Chase’s mutual passion for ceasing animal abuse reaches far deeper than cuddly concerns for cute, helpless creatures. It only takes a short conversation with the couple to understand that it’s obvious this problem is far more profound – almost existential – to them both. After seeing what had been done to Etana, Jen and Chase came to realize that the world of animal cruelty is not only about the animals. It’s about humans as well.

“I got to a pretty dark place, and I had to find peace within myself for my work to still be efficient,” says Jen. “Seeing that much cruelty on a day-to-day basis, all of these horrors that were committed at the hands of humans – it’s very hard to believe in the kindness of humans. It’s really difficult to look at people in a positive way. And you get jaded. I had to find a way to get myself out of that depressive mode and continue my work in a positive and influential way, rather than simply getting angry and upset, because that doesn’t help anyone either.”

Etana became the couple’s inspiration and flagship; a way out of the darkness. Shortly after the dog had fully recovered and found a home, the Utleys started The Etana Fund to Stop Cruelty Against Animals, which raises funds in order to help Humane Law Officers crack down on cases where animals are being mistreated. From that moment on the couple’s effort continued to evolve into a vocation more powerful and far-reaching than either could have anticipated.

“I started focusing not only on helping the animals – which was always number one – but also looking for other outlets in the community and across the country,” says Jen. “I started giving speeches at fundraisers and events. And I started visiting schools to teach children about this. And that’s a really great place to be. It’s a nice balance to work with children. They’re so curious. And there’s an innocence there. These kids love animals, they connect with them naturally, and they will eventually grow into adults who will help change all of this.”

The more involved the Utleys became in stemming the tide of animal cruelty, the more Jen and Chase started realizing how pervasive the problem truly is. Philadelphia, for instance, has one of the highest rates of dog fighting in the nation. Moreover, they came to see how the face of animal cruelty truly spans the spectrum of race, gender and economic status.

“Early last year, we responded to a case in Philadelphia that really shocked me. It was someone you would never suspect. Someone who lived in Old City in a really gorgeous house,” recalls Jen. “When I looked at the address I thought it couldn’t have been correct. But sure enough, we arrived on the scene and there were two dogs that had been chained outside and were starving to the bone. So really, animal abuse happens everywhere.”

In an effort to continue spreading that message, the Utleys will be hosting their 4th Annual Utley All-Star Animals Casino Night on April 28 in Philadelphia. Already the event – which brings together between 400 and 500 people, including many of Chase’s Phillies teammates – has raised more than $500,000, and proceeds will continue benefiting the Etana Fund.

Speaking of his teammates contribution to the cause, Chase says, “We all support each other, which is really great. People come out to the casino night to support the charity, but they also come out because they want to meet Ryan Howard or Jimmy Rollins, and it makes the evening that much more special. I can’t say enough about the support I’ve had from my teammates.”

In addition to hosting the casino night, the Utleys have also formed The Utley Foundation, a non-profit of their own design with the goal of educating the community about the proper treatment of animals, encouraging adoption and helping to fund other non-profit organizations that are active in the fight against animal neglect, pain and suffering. Even though the foundation is in its infancy, already Jen and Chase have commissioned a mural to be painted on the wall of a Philadelphia school where it’s known that dogfights occur on the playground after hours.

“On more than one occasion I’ve had people come up to me and express how much they love animals. How they just adopted a pet and appreciate what we’re doing,” says Chase. “It makes us feel good when those things happen, because that’s the point we’re trying to get across.”

When asked if she finds hers or Chase’s connection to animals particularly unique, Jen sighs and takes a moment to consider.

“I don’t know. I don’t find it to be a special gift, necessarily,” she says. “I think some people just have a tendency to separate human beings from the rest of the world. They hate nature. They hate animals. And I don’t understand where that comes from. It’s the cycle of life. We’re all on the same planet, and we need to respect that. That’s, I think, is where all of this comes from.”

March 2011
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