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Memorial honors ‘Sparky,’ the raccoon that caused blackout

A memorial near a PNM substation in Rio Rancho pays tribute to a raccoon that died this month after getting too close to a transformer, causing a power outage. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Poor Sparky. He never had a chance, but he went out with a bang and his memory continues to burn bright.

Earlier this month, the unlucky raccoon, perhaps looking for love in all the wrong places, nuzzled up to a transformer inside a Public Service Company of New Mexico substation. The little guy was immediately electrocuted, and the transformer exploded and burned, causing a midweek power outage that lasted 2½ hours and affected 9,300 PNM customers in Rio Rancho.

A roadside memorial to Sparky now sits outside the PNM substation near Iris and Idalia in Rio Rancho, thanks to Trent Heffner, principal of Vista Grande Elementary School, his wife, Janice, and two of their children.

On the Saturday after the Dec. 13 incident, as Heffner and his wife were driving by the substation, “it occurred to us that it would be funny and clever if someone erected a memorial for the raccoon,” he said. “So rather than wait for somebody else to do it, we did it ourselves. We used scrap wood in our backyard, and our kids and one of their friends wrote messages on rocks. It was my wife’s idea to name him Sparky.”

The memorial is in the shape of a cross and inscribed with the words: “RIP Sparky ?-12-13-17”

Heffner acknowledged that even though he hammered together a cross, he did not actually know the religious affiliation of the raccoon; rather, he just adopted the traditional style of New Mexico descansos, roadside memorials that mark the place of a violent or accidental death.

The evening the raccoon’s descanso was set up was windy, so Heffner said he returned the next night to light the devotional candles.

Since then, other people have added items to the memorial, including artificial flowers and a stuffed raccoon toy.

Heffner posted pictures of the memorial to the Nextdoor neighborhood website and has received generally positive feedback.

“People said the power outage brought their family together for a couple of hours; so on some level, Sparky did bring our community together by getting the kids off Wi-Fi and other electronics, and it just gave everyone a story to tell,” he said.

Of course, not everyone saw the levity buried in this tragic tale.

Heffner said, “A colleague of mine said her husband commented that ‘Someone put up a memorial for a raccoon. What kind of an idiot does that?’ ”

Shortly after the power outage, a Twitter feed issued by PNM thanked customers for their patience and said: “Cause is believed to be a large possum that crawled into the transformer, causing the explosion.”

To be clear, said Lynn Tupa, ABQ BioPark zoo manager and a mammal expert, there are no opossums in New Mexico, except for the occasional stowaway aboard trucks.

PNM now admits the mistaken identity, but in all fairness, spokeswoman Meaghan Cavanaugh said, Sparky “didn’t make it through very well – poor little guy.” Consequently, identification of the charred animal found at the foot of the transformer was initially a bit confusing.

Still, Cavanaugh said, “We thought the memorial was a really sweet gesture from someone with a good heart.”

And lest anyone think the folks at PNM are bitter about the power interruption and damage caused by Sparky, Cavanaugh said she will “get a rock and have all of us in corporate communications sign it, and then we’ll go and lay it out there and pay our respects.”

Rest in peace, Sparky.

UpFront is a regular Journal news and opinion column. Comment directly to Rick Nathanson at 823-3929 or