CARTHAGE, Ill. -- A help wanted sign in the window of a pet store gave Anissa Sadeghi a purpose.
She didn't know what job she was calling about when she repeatedly rang the Keokuk Pet Center, but that didn't matter. She was content with minimum wage, which was just more than $4 back then. The opening turned out to be for a groomer -- not as ideal as actually working out on the floor with the customers and all the animals -- but it got her in the door.
Her connection to animals is ineffable -- something, she said, you either have or you don't have -- but she describes it as a deep compassion. A deeply engrained part of who she is, the connection predates her memories. She said that after her parents caught a mouse in a trap when she was very little, she ceremoniously buried it. They had dogs, cats and rabbits growing up. The neighbors had goats and hogs. Really, anything with four legs worked.
Sadeghi grew up in Powellton -- a small, unincorporated community east of Nauvoo that is made up of four houses nestled around a four-way stop. The only indicator of Powellton is a tongue-in-cheek sign near a flagpole that reads "Downtown Powellton." The family moved to Hamilton when she was a junior in high school, and she finished her education there.
She met Dave Sadeghi at the annual Nauvoo Grape Festival when they were in high school. They married about a month after graduation, and he went into the Marines. He was stationed in San Diego, and she went along for the ride. She was 18.
"I found out that the world was bigger than Powellton," she said. "I never knew."
She spent Sundays hanging out at humane societies across southern California. Part of her was looking for the right pet, part of her was just passing the time. From those excursions, they adopted their first dog together -- a Samoyed named Ariel who died at 13. From San Diego to Boston to Keokuk, Ariel made every move with the couple.
"She flew coast to coast with us a lot and drove back from New England to Keokuk," Sadeghi said.
Shortly after they moved back to the area in the early 1990s, they settled in Carthage. She opened her own grooming shop and has managed it for the past 27 years.
In 2001, a client entered her grooming shop in tears, telling, in graphic detail, of the conditions of the dog pound.
"It was bad," Sadeghi said. "We had three runs out there. Dead dogs behind the building. Six to 10 dogs per run, and they were killing each other."
The conditions prompted a state investigation, and the suffering of the animals awakened something within Sadeghi. She had found a cause to rally behind.
"Once you've seen it, you know in your heart that there's no going back," she said.
There was no roadmap for how to help. Several concerned community members, Sadeghi included, came together to form the Hearts of Hancock Humane Society and constructed a new building for the organization on the edge of Carthage.
Sadeghi later branched out on her own and formed West Hancock Canine Rescue, still working with animal control and the growing network of other rescues and humane societies across the state she had built. When people bring her dogs in need of homes, she reaches out to contacts and drives hours on end to transport them to larger metropolitan hubs like St. Louis and Chicago, often making drop-offs at rest stops to other couriers in a sort of relay race.
"The first adoptable dog that had to be euthanized was a big Newfie mix," she said. "(Hurricane) Katrina hit at that time, and everyone's attention turned down there. For the first time in a long time I was told no."
When it became clear that she wouldn't be able to save the dog, Sadeghi found herself torn between reason and emotion, trying to reconcile the anger of not being able to save every dog with the greater good of the work she was doing.
Earlier this month, when the county took possession of 54 dogs from a breeder, Sadeghi was able to find rescues and humane societies to take each dog in a few days. She sees that rescue as the culmination of all of the work she has done with animals in the past.
Making tough choices
Another couple brought their five foster siblings over to the Sadeghis' for Christmas one year. The Sadeghis had two sons -- a 3-year-old and a 5-year-old -- at the time. The interaction with the five young girls inspired the Sadeghis.
"Everybody has their own reasons for fostering," Sadeghi said. "We wanted permanency, we wanted foster-to-adopt situations."
They adopted the two sisters they fostered, a 2-year-old and a 1-year-old. She made it clear to her sons that there was no difference between her biological and adopted children. They were all a unified family.
"I have lost relationships with friends, family members over the years that thought that my priorities were a little misguided, that I didn't think of my children first," she said, "but I felt that doing what I was doing was putting my children first. It was reacting to something bigger than us."
Animal rescue has forced Sadeghi to make some tough choices. It has pulled her away from classroom parties and other milestones in her children's lives. She was leaving the shelter, after coaxing a terrified dog into trusting her, when she got the call that her sister had died.
"All I could think was that I was at the pound, trying to save a dog," she said softly, unable to bury the guilt she still carries three years later. "But that's where she wanted me to be."
She justified the sacrifices by staying focused on the end result and on the values she hoped her children would later emulate.
She offers the example of Friday nights, which are spent at high school football games. Dave coaches football, and she coaches cheerleading. After the game wraps up, they return home to put crates together for the rescue as a family. Her daughters helped her earlier this month with the 54-dog rescue.
Her son, a banker in Denver, recently had two pugs jump into his car. He immediately called Sadeghi for advice on how to help them.
"I don't know what most 24-year-old guys would do, but my son took them in and tried to find the owners," she said.
Her top parenting moment -- the one that proved to her that the sacrifices were worthwhile -- came at the end of her younger son's last football game of his senior year. They won the game, and as the players were sprinting off in celebration as a group, her son slowed and dropped back to help a teammate on crutches keep up.
"That for me is when it came full circle," she said. "As a parent, you don't get to see those moments very often."
Staff Writer Matt Dutton will bring you a story detailing the life of a local resident each Monday.