Sullivan: A community returns kindness to the ‘dog whisperer’

Local News

Sharon Harrell has known Mary Beth McElligott for nearly half a century, since they were in grade school in East Aurora. Harrell calls her friend a “magical person” who touches the world with her kindness, humor and boundless compassion. 

There are hundreds of pet lovers out there in the Western New York community who would attest to that. Eight years ago, McElligott and her late husband, Terry, founded T&M WNY Lost Pet Rescue to help people find their lost or stolen pets after the dogs of a family and a friend both disappeared.

McElligott became even more committed after her husband’s death in 2017. She has become perhaps the most noted dog tracker and trapper in the area. She has recovered hundreds of lost animals and has thousands of followers on her Facebook page, which serves shelters and trappers in the region. 

She does it for love, not money. 

“People don’t even know,” Harrell said. “She never takes a dollar, and it can cost her up to hundreds of dollars for every dog she returns, with equipment and gas and whatever. She’s a saint. Mary Beth has never been one to accept help, even to her own detriment.”

Harrell’s voice cracked when she said it. Early on the morning of Sept. 20, fire tore through Mary Beth’s home on Schultz Road in West Seneca. McElligott was asleep at the time. She awoke to a house in flames and barely got out of the house alive before collapsing on the front lawn. Two dogs she had rescued years ago, Fred and Ginger, perished.

Her son was the first member of the East Seneca fire department to arrive on the scene. Mary Beth suffered burns all over her body and was transported to the ECMC burn unit to begin a long, painful recovery. The worst burns were on her arms and feet. She also had glass and debris embedded in her feet after leaving the house barefoot. She’s had to undergo painful skin grafts.

“Probably three-quarters of her right arm had to have skin grafts done,” said Mary Frodella, a close friend of McElligott since they were 5 years old. “Her feet are real bad, one worse than the other. There’s still debris in her feet. They’ve tried to dig it out and stuff like that, but it’ll have to wait for the body to reject it.”

It’s been an excruciating two weeks for McElligott. She is out of ECMC and staying in an efficiency hotel for now. Her friends say she had good days and bad. Harrell said she spoke with her for two hours on Sunday and while Mary Beth still has her sense of humor, things are very, very hard right now. 

“She is beyond devastated about the dogs that were lost,” said Harrell, who is fostering two dogs that survived the fire, Corky and Lizzie. She said she will take the dogs to see Mary Beth for a cheer-up visit on Thursday.

It will come as no surprise to anyone who knows McElligott that the dogs were a major concern when she tried to get out of that house. 

Friends call Mary Beth McElligott (second from left) a “magical person.” Now, she’s relying on those she has helped to return the favor. “She’s a saint,” said Sharon Harrell (right), seated with Judy Bragg (far left) and Carolyn Blount (second from right).

“Of course, she was worried about the dogs,” Frodella said. “But she was totally in shock, waking up like that. She didn’t have any shoes on. She realized her feet were burning because the floors were pretty much on fire. All she knew to do was get out of there.”

Frodella said she doesn’t know how the fire started. What matters now is that McElligott recovers and that she gets the financial support she needs to rebuild her life. 

“So here we have a situation where Mary Beth realizes she must accept help,” Harrell said. “For her, that’s huge, and she’s comfortable with it. She’s like, ‘OK, I guess now it’s my turn to let somebody help me.’ She has an amazing attitude.”

Some of that comes from Terry. Harrell said he was the love of Mary Beth’s life, a man who hosted a 50th birthday party for his wife and four of her friends eight years ago. They married later in life and had five children between them. They started the pet rescue venture together — thus the ’T&M’ in the title. 

“They would go in the middle of the night, grab their Tim Hortons coffee and go out looking for lost animals,” Frodella said. “That how they spent their time together. They were inseparable.”

Terry died in 2017 after what Frodella described as “a long battle with medical issues.” Harrell said Mary Beth never really got over his death. ‘

“That’s one of the reasons her passion for the rescue is so intense,” Harrell said,  “because it’s something she and Terry started together. It’s Terry and Mary Beth. She honors him every time she tracks a dog, finds a dog or unites a dog.”

Frodella said she told Mary Beth to be a good patient in the burn unit, to do whatever the doctors and nurses said.

“She says, ‘I do. I’m channeling Terry,’” Frodella said. “‘This is how he would be.’ Even when they were removing debris and scarping her arms down, twice a day. With tears running down her face, she would look at the doctors and thank them for taking care of her.”

Harrell said Mary Beth told her the same thing. She borrowed her dignified manner in the hospital from the love of her life. “That’s what Terry would say when he was at the VA,” Harrell said. 

“She says, ‘Well, Sharon, they’re short-handed and some patients are really bad and screaming all night long,” Harrell said. “She goes, ‘I just don’t want to be a problem. I’m like, ‘Oh my God, girl!’ She’s always thinking of others.”

Her friends say McElligott’s compassion for others extended in all aspects of her life. 

“It goes beyond the fur babies,” Frodella said, using a pet phrase for rescue dogs. “In her job, she took care of brain trauma patients. After they needed rehabilitating, she was that person. She’s probably friends with every patient she ever helped.

“People get attached to her because her heart is so amazing. You can obviously tell how many people’s lives she has touched. That’s mostly through the dog trapping. That was not her job, it was her passion. That she did because she loves animals. And she loves to help people.”

“I’ve got a story for you,” Harrell said. “My son, Brian, had a kidney transplant between seventh and eighth grade. About six months post-transplant, he’s got a couple of hundred dollars worth of gift cards for Tower Records. He was walking up to Tower Records and was subsequently robbed. He was thrown on his face, right on his kidney. They took his backpack, all of his gift cards.”

A few days later, Mary Beth called and said, ‘I’m coming over.’ She showed up and handed Brian about $250, basically all the spare money she had. She handed him a three-page letter, telling him not to let one bad experience crush his belief in the essential goodness of people.

“She’s not a wealthy person,” Harrell said in a halting voice. She said Brian never forgot it. “He’s also a very kind and wonderful person and knows there’s a lot of good people in the world,” she said. 

Frodella said every dog Mary Beth ever caught “became like her family in her heart.” She said her friend is like “an animal whisperer,” someone who can be driving around in the dark and sense an animal’s presence. 

“She can think like a dog,” Frodella said with a laugh. 

Nothing stopped her. Frodella said McElligott fell and broke her shoulder a couple of years ago. The shoulder was removed and replaced with a spacer until the infection was gone. She went without it longer than anticipated because it was an elective surgery during Covid-19.

“She still was out looking for people’s lost dogs,” Frodella said. She said Mary Beth would crawl around in the woods, without a shoulder, tracking lost dogs. 

“I used to tell her ‘What are you doing?’ But it was that important to her to help.”

Now it’s time for all her kindnesses to come back to her. Harrell told her you bless the person by accepting their help. Frodella said the response to fundraising efforts has been overwhelming. 

There are two GoFundMe Accounts set up for her — one by Frodella and Kaela Van Pelt, the other by Lindsey Black — that have already raised more than $46,000 between them. There’s also a chicken barbecue being planned at the Thirsty Dog Saloon in Depew on Oct. 24.

“Her spirit needs to be lifted,” Frodella said. “The community has really stepped up and they’re helping in any way they can. We’re going to get overwhelmed with donations, I’m getting messages with people saying, Please tell us what we can do to help. They’re desperate to help. That’s the kind of woman she is.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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