I named him Rocky. Because he was a squirrel. Because I hoped he was a fighter. And because I felt the need to comfort him as I pried open his tiny front incisors with an eyedropper and squirted a mixture of kitten formula and whipping cream into his mouth.
“C’mon, Rocky, you can do it,” I said, as I sat cross-legged in my neighbor’s driveway, cradling the dying baby squirrel in my hand.
He couldn’t do it. The little bit he swallowed came right back up. Not every story has a happy ending. And Rocky’s story ended minutes after we met. There was no time to get him to Treehouse Wildlife Center, which is where I would have taken him had he survived.
How I wished the late, great Sandie Konopelski, of O’Fallon, was still around. Maybe you read about Sandie at the time of her death. She was the metro-east wildlife rescue volunteer who was struck and killed by a MetroLink train while trying to remove an opossum from the track.
A few uninformed people thought she got what she deserved: “Risk your life to save an animal? What kind of idiot would do that?” Well, the Sandie Konopelski I knew was far from an idiot. She was the most focused and dedicated person I’ve ever met.
I don’t know all the details of what happened the day Sandie died. But the way she lived? That made her my hero.
It was not a coincidence that Rocky, the orphaned baby gray squirrel, appeared in my neighbor’s yard on April 24th, the first anniversary of Sandie’s death. Spring and summer were always Sandie’s busy seasons. I first met her on a hot summer day eight years ago, when my dog Lenny scooped up a hummingbird in his mouth.
After Lenny spit out the bird, I called Wild Birds Unlimited in Swansea for advice. They gave me Sandie’s number.
“You have a hummingbird?” Sandie, who was a longtime volunteer for the Bi-State Wildlife Hotline, asked in her trademark staccato cadence.
“How long was it in the dog’s mouth?”
“What does it look like?”
“What is it doing?”
From my answers, Sandie determined the hummingbird might have a chance. Yes, his wings were outstretched like Christ on the cross. But that is common behavior when a bird is stunned — and Lenny’s breath could stun an eagle.
“Meet me in McDonald’s parking lot by the Belleville Fairgrounds,” Sandie ordered. “Can you be there in 30 minutes?” She greeted me a half-hour later wearing khaki shorts and hiking boots, waving a juvenile hummingbird feeder in her hand.
A couple days later, she told me the little bird had made it. “I released it in a ‘safe location,’” she said. I put her phone number in a safe location as well.
During the next several years, I called Sandie for help with everything from the raccoon that covertly pooped on my friend’s deck – “Turn on a radio. That’ll keep it away” – to the severely injured goose I spied in Bellevue Park. (Sandie fearlessly leapt into the pond with a net and captured the goose on her fifth swoop.)
I will never forget the day my son Sam and I had the privilege of visiting her Shiloh home.
Sam found a baby robin drowning in a puddle and Sandie said we could drop it off. I can still picture her husband, Marc, relaxing in his easy chair surrounded by cages — and playpens — filled with everything from baby foxes to injured opossums.
Sandie opened an unplugged microwave in their kitchen, gently tucking the robin into a nest alongside other baby birds.
“That’ll make it feel more secure,” she said and smiled.
This spring, a year after the passing of Sandie Konopelski, I and other local animal welfare advocates are feeling a little less secure than usual. The Rockys of metro-east wildlife have lost their champion. And the rest of us? Well, we’ve lost a friend.
Michelle Meehan Schrader is a lifelong animal lover and board member of the Belleville Area Humane Society.