Raising a hellbender is rough, but rewarding

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Eastern hellbender
Eastern hellbender by U.S. Department of Agriculture (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/16447529867)], via Flickr

Over 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.

The hellbender is the largest native salamander found in North America and is found within the unglaciated ragged and worn hills of Appalachia and the Ozarks. Jefferson County and its citizens have an extensive and intertwined relationship with the hellbender (stone carvings of hellbenders by the Monongahela people dating to 600 BC were found in the Ohio River bed stone just north of Steubenville) that continues to this day.

It is altogether fitting and proper that one of the hellbender’s last strongholds in Ohio is in Jefferson County. For just as the hellbender struggles with adapting to changing times and forging its way in a different time, the people of Jefferson County continue to try and reinvent themselves and climb out of the dredges of the Rust Belt region and mentality, while retaining our character.

As part of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, it is our goal to conserve, promote and reintroduce the hellbender throughout its native ranges in Ohio.

Raising awareness

A key element of that philosophy is educating the people about hellbenders and raising awareness of the animal and its environment. In order to promote the hellbender, the Ohio Division of Wildlife decided to allow six one-year-old hellbenders to be sent out to different agencies and wildlife centers throughout the state, to be put on display, and Jefferson Soil and Water Conservation District was selected to be one of these inaugural locations.

On Aug. 24, we made the long drive from Steubenville to Findlay, Ohio, to pick up one of the first six baby hellbenders that were being handed out by the Ohio Division of Wildlife as part of an educational promotion to raise awareness of hellbenders.

We were the proud caretakers of a 5-inch little boy hellbender that was from an egg we collected out of Cross Creek in central Jefferson County. As crazy as it sounds, it was just like having a baby, as even though you were given care instructions and had everything prepared at home, once you got the little guy and started your journey home, everything you were prepped for and anticipated was going to happen went straight out the window.

Through the charity of Pet Supplies Plus, of Steubenville, we had a 55-gallon aquarium and all necessary accessories (filters, lids, oxygen supply) donated which was a huge cost savings.

However, the aquarium delivery was delayed, so we immediately dug out an old 20-gallon aquarium from the 1970s that had, fittingly, been to hell and back in appearance.

The house

We carved out a piece of sandstone we got from near where native hellbenders are located, to make a small den for our baby hellbender and got him in the aquarium.

We got distilled water and filled the aquarium to capacity and placed all of the oxygen stones before making a run to Pet Supplies Plus, to get him the food that was recommended by the zoo.

While we waited on the aquarium to be delivered, a local citizen heard we had just received the baby hellbender and donated us a 110-gallon aquarium to house him.

We went and retrieved the 6-foot long, 200-pound aquarium from the basement of the donor (carrying it up the steps), and got it to the office after barely fitting into the work jeep and cramming it into the elevator.

We filled the big aquarium with more stone and made another nest rock for him that was larger and moved him into his new digs. Very quickly everything went wrong. Our little calm hellbender that would hide under the rock all day soon was swimming around and pirouetting out of the water like Esther Williams — fear and panic gripped the office and we quickly got him back into his old aquarium where he happily settled in back under his rock.

We later determined that he did not have enough oxygen in the big tank as he requires around 85-90 percent dissolved oxygen in his water.

However, this great discovery wasn’t without its tribulation as we when we added too many oxygen stones to his aquarium he absorbed too much air and we nearly killed him.

At this point, we got his permanent aquarium installed in the boardroom of the Jefferson Soil and Water office while we tried to figure him out as the plan was to move him to the Steubenville Public Library.

Accessories

After we got him his new aquarium, we set him up with all of the amenities that a little hellbender could want with stone, stream simulators and a plethora of oxygen stones. However, once again things weren’t going well for our little hellbender.

The aquarium had a reflective bottom on it, so he was getting inundated with too much light causing him to freak out, which resulted in our October board meeting being held in nearly complete darkness.

We were able to close the blinds and get a small sediment layer built up on the aquarium to help appease his ever-increasing demands. As the weather cooled outside, our next great panic occurred. Our office building’s heat soon kicked on and our office temperature soon climbed into the mid-80s, which caused his water to skyrocket, putting his life in danger.

This led to fear and panic in the office, as we began quickly freezing water bottles and putting in his aquarium every day (including weekends) while we searched for an aquarium chiller. The chiller will regulate the temperature of the water and are quite costly and not carried by all pet stores.

During our search for a chiller, we contacted one pet store who insisted that we didn’t need one and as we explained we had a ‘wild’ salamander the clerk demanded that we return the hellbender to the stream immediately.

We were soon able to find one on Amazon and had it within four very long days. The next big hurdle that I discovered was that our little Goldilocks was not eating the food that the zoo recommended us feeding him.

His diet

He snubbed his nose to everything we offered him that was on his prescribed diet. Fear and panic set in as we are on the verge of killing him … again.

So, we tried to think rationally and went to the stream and kick-seined to see what was near the adult, native, wild hellbender population. We discovered that the majority of the potential menu items were hellgrammites, crayfish and stonefly larva.

So we soon went about obtaining these items to see if they would work for him. We set up another aquarium to house the living food, as has been proven successful by such entities as Red Lobster, and soon served him up a nice delicious hellgrammite.

As soon as the first hellgrammite hit the water, our little hellbender was out from underneath his rock and was on the active hunt. He soon had it and was devouring it as we watched and jumped up and down out of excitement for being successful in getting him to finally eat.

Our celebrations and high fives soon turned to … you guessed it … fear and panic as we watch him snatch up his second hellgrammite. Since the hellgrammites were nearly the size of him, we watched in horror as he began to swell up into a round little hot dog with four little legs.

We possibly killed him … again, from overfeeding him. For the next few hours, we were glued to the aquarium glass like a pleco suckerfish and were relieved as we noticed as he rocked from side to side that he was going to make it.

Watching him move

The next day we came into the office and rushed back to the boardroom to see his fate, and we were great perplexed as he walked around on his front legs as his back half floated along.

We soon discovered that overeating he had made him a bit gassy, which we kind of chuckled about until we learned that if he didn’t pass the gas, it could prove fatal.

So, for the next three days, we watched. … in fear and panic hoping we weren’t on the verge of killing him … again hoping he would pass his gas.

We never thought we would be happy about something passing gas in front of us, but when it happened it was high fives all around.

We are finally getting the hand of raising a baby hellbender, but we still have our adventures. There are times of humor such as when one of the crayfish escaped the food tank after climbing up the oxygen hose, claw-over-claw before base-jumping off the table and walking the 60 feet to our front doors before being stopped cold in his tracks by the lock on the door, which was out of his three-inch reach.

There are still times of fear and panic as our little hellbender does very unhellbenderish, things such as riding the water currents with a limp body and smile on his face to relieve the boredom and signify that he his hungry.

We are still hoping that we can move forward with our plans for grand unveiling for him versus planning his funeral arrangements.

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