Saturday, May 16, 2015

Death of a Rescuer

Sandie Konopelski & Friend
On Friday, April 25th, while I was working my regular job as a Resource Specialist at Age Smart Community Resources in Shiloh, Illinois, Sandie Konopelski was climbing across train tracks wearing a pair of "bite gloves" in pursuit of an opossum who had ventured out onto the tracks.

I did not know Sandie, had never met her. She was a different kind of rescuer. Sandie had devoted the last 20 years of her life to wildlife rescue and rehab, while I had devoted about the same portion of my life to rescuing and rehoming dogs. Sandie was two years older than me, and lived there in Shiloh, where I was working that morning.

Later that day, I heard the news that a woman had been struck and killed by a westbound Metrolink train. It had happened between 8:00am and 8:20am. Details are sketchy. Metro has not released any information on who placed the call for assistance to the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline of Missouri and Illinois, but it's reasonable to think it was a Metro employee, since they regularly called the hotline for assistance with wildlife on the train tracks. Sandie responded, as she had numerous times before. How she ended up in the path of an oncoming train that day, no one seems to know.

I put the incident aside, thinking no more about it. That is, until Jenny came into the agency for her appointment.

Jenny was a neat little gray-headed senior with a cafe au lait complexion and a friendly manner. She laughed a lot. I liked her immediately. She sat in the chair beside my desk and looked up at a picture I keep on the wall. It is a Winter depiction of a young woman with her arms wrapped around a red pit bull. The dogs eyes are closed. You can feel the love between them.

"What a beautiful painting", she said. "Is it someone you know?"

I explained that the young woman in the picture was a rehab staffer from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.The dog was one of Michael Vick's pit bulls.

"Did you hear about the woman killed on the Metrolink tracks in Swansea?" she asked. "I don't know for sure, but I'm afraid that was my Sandie." He voice faded and her countenance was sad."I don't know for sure. But I've called her cell phone several times. She hasn't answered."

She went on to explain that her house backed up to a wooded area."I call her all the time," Jenny continued. "She always comes out. Once, I found a sick raccoon in my back yard. She couldn't save that one. It had distemper. I've found rabbits and opossums...even a coyote pup!"

I interjected that I also did rescue, but with dogs. "I have loved animals ever since I was a child," she smiled. "Once when I called, Miss Sandie told me she was at church, but she'd be out right after. And she always called me back to let me know what happened to the animals she came and got. She always came whenever I called her." Her warm brown eyes misted over. "Who will I call now?"

I had no easy answer for her. I was beginning to realize what a huge hole "Miss Sandie" had left in her wake. I gave Jenny my cell number and told her to call me. "I'm not a wildlife rescuer," I said, "but I'll find someone who is. I'll help you in a pinch." 

When Jenny left, I understood much more than I had before about the woman who had been struck and killed while struggling to save an animal. Jenny was just the tip of the iceberg. How many more were wondering what to do, who to call now? I felt personally robbed of this amazing rescuer who had lived and rescued in my own backyard, yet I never knew it.

I felt a pang of sadness for the loss of a compassionate, wise and skilled rescuer. There are so few...

I did not know Sandie Konopelski. But damn, I sure wish I had.