The dream that haunts Vic Koppelberger by Donna Robb

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, May 1993:

The dream that haunts Vic Koppelberger came to
him 30 years ago, and changed his life.
“I stood in a room before all the animals I ever
shot,” Koppelberger remembers. “They were lined up and
staring at me. It was my judgement day.”
Koppelberger, now 75, never hunted again.
He had the dream shortly after a disturbing hunt-
ing experience. Using a stuffed owl as a decoy,
Koppelberger and his game warden hunting companion hid
in the woods at the edge of a clearing. The owl, perched on
a stump, attracted crows who dive-bombed the stuffed
enemy. The crows made easy targets.

The hunting pair moved to a new location, and
using the same tactic, drew a Cooper’s hawk within shotgun
range. Vic doesn’t know whose pellets brought the hawk
tumbling from the sky, but it was only wounded.
“I held it in my hand. It was bleeding through my
fingers. It looked at me with those red eyes, so defiant and
full of hatred for me. I asked myself, why am I doing this?
Why? And I didn’t have an answer.” Koppelberger’s eyes
well up and his voice trails off as he tells the story.
Born in 1917, raised in rural Medina, Ohio,
Koppelberger always loved the outdoors. “I escaped from
my strict Baptist father by heading for the woods,” he
remembers. “I’d take a cowboy book with me, and an air
gun.” Koppelberger, a loner in school, loved guns. “I was
skinny and bashful, so I guess the gun made me feel
tough,” he says. “I had feelings for animals. I tried to
make pets of everything, but I couldn’t resist guns. If I
couldn’t have an animal, hold it, I would shoot it. We were
farm boys. Everybody, even the dog warden, hunted and
trapped, and the game warden was my idol. I was an emo-
tional guy, but I had to hide it.”
The eyes of one dying hawk and a Judgement Day
dream turned Koppelberger around. He vowed to make
amends. “I had to pay them back somehow. I began help-
ing animals every chance I could. I consider everything I
do for animals now as paying my debt,” he explains.
Koppelberger became a wildlife rehabilitator. He
also assisted with bird-banding projects, climbing trees to
band nestlings. And his research into the habits and diets of
predatory birds helped remove a price tag from their heads.
“The state used to pay bounties––a dollar per dead hawk,
25¢ for a crow,” he remembers. Koppelberger also assisted
in a statewide songbird tracking project.
At age 45, Koppelberger, a World War II veteran
and father of four, was out of the closet. “If you were a
photographer or birdwatcher, you didn’t tell that to many
people,” he recalls. “I admitted to one guy that I was bird-
watching, and he said, ‘I always knew there was something
wrong with you.’ It wasn’t disgraceful then to have all those
heads on the wall, but things have changed.”
Koppelberger and his wife of 54 years, Maxine,
joined a newly founded local SPCA in 1986. He soon
became the humane officer. He also obtained a state license
in 1988 to officially act as a “nuisance trapper.” As Medina
County, 25 miles southwest of Cleveland, evolved from
rural to suburban, wild animals increasingly came into con-
flict with humans. Most “nuisance trappers” who respond
to problem wildlife calls are fur trappers, turning an extra
dollar on the side. They charge homeowners to catch ani-
mals, then auction the pelts or sell live animals to hunting
clubs. Among them, Koppelberger is a rarity. He seldom
charges a fee for his assistance, and he will not sell wild
animals. Nor does he kill any animal who isn’t too badly
injured or too ill to recover.
Several veterinarians are prepared for anything
when Koppelberger walks through their doors. He’s taken
them snakes, geese, ducks, raccoons, turtles, owls,
hawks, squirrels, even one great blue heron. Most of the
vets treat or euthanize Koppelberger’s wild waifs gratis. In
return Koppelberger is sometimes called into the clinics to
identify snakes. A network of other wildlife rehabilitators
assist him in nursing injured animals back to health, includ-
ing raptor experts Bill and Laura Jordan, 42, who for six
years have maintained a private bird rehab center at their
home in Chatham Township––complete with a 32-foot-long
flight cage. Between the birds brought to them by
Koppelberger and birds brought by others, they assisted 56
birds in all last year.
Koppelberger rescues animals from all the usual
places––attics, basements, garages, chimneys, trees,
playgrounds, supermarkets, and roadways––all the while
remembering that public education is the key to creating
peaceful coexistence between people and wildlife. He has
come to expect the 2 a.m. telephone call and frantic voice
on the line: “Will it bite me? Does it have rabies? How
can I get rid of it?” He handles each case with patience,
knowhow, and years of experience.
“After that day of hunting and the lesson that
hawk taught me,” Koppelberger says, “and as I look back,
I know that no one should ever try to capture or kill the
wild creatures of the woods and fields. To me, the term
‘harvest’ is a cover-up. Animals are killed; wheat and corn
are harvested. I am older now, and a little wiser.” He
laughs. “I even walk around spider webs.”
[Koppelberger may be contacted for wildlife
advice c/o the Medina County SPCA, P.O. Box 135,
Medina, OH 44258; 216-723-7722.]
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