Pain and order: Raising a hellbender


The hellbender is the largest salamander found in North America and is found within the ragged and worn hills of Appalachia. The species has been largely extirpated from Ohio, however, a few strongholds still exist and Jefferson County is home to some of the largest populations of native hellbenders.

So for the past 10 years, the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District has been a part of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, an organization of private, state and federal entities that is trying to preserve the state endangered hellbender.

In order to promote the hellbender, the Ohio Division of Wildlife gave baby hellbenders to different agencies and wildlife centers throughout the state, and Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District was selected to be one of these inaugural locations.

Our office has been housing our baby hellbender since Aug. 24, 2017. In the Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District Office, hellbender conservation is represented by two separate but equal groups: The staff that is dedicated to educating, caring and sacrificing for the hellbender, and the hellbender who lives up to his name. These are our stories. DUN DUN


After recently getting married, I found that people aren’t satisfied with your marital bliss and living within the honeymoon of a new life of togetherness with your wife. Instead, the only thing they care about now is “when are you going to have a baby??”

After a year and a half of raising a hellbender, I can assure that the answer is: never! (Sorry Mom).

Dealing with a hellbender is similar to what I envision a child would be like to raise. At any given moment, he wants attention and the minute you attempt to placate him, he wants nothing to do with you or what you are trying to give him.

Temper tantrums are standard, which has led our poor aquarium skeleton to hit the rum jug with frequent regularity.

Although sharing is strongly encouraged, we have found a little hellbender never wants to share and has been known to bite his fish friends’ heads off. Literally.


Worst of all, is he can be a complete ham and fill the day with laughter or ahhs, but you even think about pulling a camera out or showing him off to a friend, and he just hides under a rock.

Good grief, let’s not even talk about food! Does he appreciate that two people from the office have to go out into the stream every other week to collect hellgrammites — braving flood waters and rapid currents, breaking ice and sticking bare arms into freezing water temperatures, or withstanding the dense clouds of bloodsucking mosquitoes that can find spots on your body that you didn’t even know existed?

No, he most certainly does not! Instead, he just puts his little feet up on the side of the aquarium wall like he’s Adam West in Batman and waits for the hand to come down and feed him his hellgrammite.

Hellbender feet

To answer your immediate thought, yes, we have to hand feed him, which we tolerate because then we know exactly what and how much he eats (to avoid any issues such as those that we discussed in last November’s Farm and Dairy article, which you can read online if you missed it).

Part of me wants to believe that he reveres the giant hand lowering food to him like the aliens in Toy Story worshipped “The Claw,” but in my heart I know he just looks at us hand feeding him as an act of servitude, respect and luxury much as Caesar did when handfed grapes as he lounged upon his throne.


However, no matter the turmoil or frustration that our little hellbender puts us through, it is all worth it in the end. The windows and opportunities that he has opened up for the office and staff is quite amazing and the mission of saving the hellbender and general conservation of our land and waters has been picked up by people you never would have suspected.

We named our hellbender Branagan after Jefferson County’s long-tenured County Engineer James Branagan who can oft be heard giving fiery speeches extrapolating on the importance of hellbenders and their presence within the streams of the county.

Partnerships have emerged with the Public Library of Steubenville and Jefferson County, the Steubenville Rotary, Steubenville Revitalization Group, and Franciscan University of Steubenville, which have given the hellbender a whole new audience.

During an open house that the library held in our office to view the hellbender, a local family came in that wanted to see him for themselves. Branagan was very considerate to the kids and showed them his great eating prowess.

After watching him eat, one of the boys, who was 10 years old, turned to the District staff and asked, “if we have ever theorized on the fact that the hellbender’s bite force is so strong that it creates a suction drawing his food into his mouth much like the ancient megalodon?”

After a brief moment of complete silence that was coupled with a blank stare brought on by total mind-altering meltdown of my brain, (which I have seen before in my father’s face when he has asked for assistance getting the computer to work), we were able to look it up and find that was in fact a heavily hypothesized theory among the hellbender academia.

Upon relaying this information to this small 10-year-old child that had his face glued to the aquarium glass watching Branagan’s every move, he simply looked at us and said, “I thought so, he’s just so cool!”

The amazing part is that the hellbender is not just captivating the wonder of the young; he is capturing the inner-childlike intrigue of all who encounter him.

Our office are completely torn apart as the building is getting a new heating and air-conditioning system. We are currently operating with temporary work lights strung from the ceiling, giving the romantic ambiance of a CIA Black Ops Site.

With this renovation comes a parade of contractors and big burly union workers who strive to do their jobs in the most timely, efficient, and manly way that they can. However, as soon as they spy the aquariums and see Branagan, they are mesmerized and filled with questions as they pull out their phones to take pictures.

More often than not, as they press their face to the aquarium glass completely transfixed by this little hellbender, you can hear them ask if they can bring their kids to see him.

Anyone can come and see Branagan the Hellbender at 500 Market Street, Mezzanine Suite 4, Steubenville, Ohio, between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, or they can follow him on his Instagram account (@branagan_hellbender) accessed via the app or

I guess the moral of the story is that even though a hellbender going through the ‘terrible twos’ is very similar to the raising a child, at the end of the day — much like a child — everything you do for him is well worth it once you see the happiness and connections that coincide with him.

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