If someone had asked me a week ago to tell them what a “hellbender” was, I’d have guessed that it was a term for a wild night of drinking that inevitably results in a killer hangover and a deep sense of regret. I now know that a “hellbender” is actually a gigantic, aquatic salamander.
Hellbenders live in the eastern part of North America, and they can grow to be over two feet long. Also known as “devil dogs,” “mud-devils,” “mud dogs,” “Allegheny alligators,” and “snot otters” (my personal favorite), hellbenders are slimy, hostile and reclusive. Unless they are mating, fighting, or trying to eat one another, hellbenders don’t even really mingle much with other hellbenders. They spend a lot of time under rocks, hiding from everything. Even though they are perfectly decent swimmers, hellbenders often stubbornly choose to walk at the bottom of streams and rivers, schlepping over rough pebbles and gritty sand. Their creepy little toes look like E.T.’s fingers.
My husband Jon and I met a hellbender at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore this past weekend. He was difficult to spot at first. The hellbender’s skin blended in extremely well with his aquarium furnishings, and he was attempting to conceal his bulky self under a large stone at the bottom of the tank. The moment I spotted him, I gasped. He was hideous! And huge!
“Whoa!” Jon yelled, “That is not what I was expecting.”
We spent quite a bit of time at the hellbender’s tank because it was fun to watch people react to him, usually in absolute terror.
“There’s nothing in here!” one horrible child pouted, stomping her foot.
“Look under that rock in the left corner!” I prompted.
“I don’t see any – AAAAIIIIIIIEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” she screeched and clung to her father’s perspiring leg.
The hellbender croaked and cackled in a raspy voice, “HEH. HEH. HEH. GOTCHA, YA BRAT.” He sounded an awful lot like Harvey Fierstein.
“He’s an ugly monster!” the little girl cried.
“HEY! TAKES ONE TO KNOW ONE, KID!” the hellbender proclaimed.
Hellbenders are not even the slightest bit cute, but that’s totally fine. They prefer it this way.
Lots of folks run screaming from the Snot Otter House of Horrors, and I think that’s because the hellbender legitimately looks like an alien. People are scared of what they don’t know. If a friend whispered in my ear that there was a secret Martian from Mars on display at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, I’d 100% guess it was the hellbender. No offense to any hellbenders out there, but y’all are some freaky critters.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the chimpanzee exhibit at the zoo was extremely popular. I’d venture to guess that this has something to do with the fact that witnessing chimps in action is essentially like watching a reality TV show. You get to watch a bunch of funny-looking, hairy almost-humans do their thing. What fun!
One of the Maryland Zoo chimps, Louie, seemed to actively enjoy the fact that people were looking at him. He plopped himself down right next to the glass barrier and chomped on a giant lettuce leaf as he stared us all down, totally relaxed.
“I feel like he’s watching us instead of us watching him!” one woman declared.
“I think he wants some Thousand Island Dressing for that salad! Haw haw haw!” one dude joked.
I walked over to Louie after he was done with his lettuce. He made a funny face at me, relaxed open mouth, no teeth showing. Chimpanzees use facial expressions to communicate and this, apparently, meant, “HEY, I JUST MET YOU, AND THIS IS CRAZY, BUT I’M A NICE GUY, SO LET’S PLAY, MAYBE.” He wanted to be friends! My heart skipped a beat. I was a little bit in love.
“Look at that guy,” Jon said, pointing to one of Louie’s chimpanzee pals. This chimp was also situated fairly close to the glass, but he was dangling from the ceiling, flashing a big, toothy grin at the crowd, not unlike The Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland.
“He’s smiling!” I said, excited, waving stupidly at the beaming chimpanzee. As if he’d wave back.
“Isn’t smiling a sign of aggression in chimps?” Jon asked.
For the second time in less than ten minutes, my heart skipped a beat, but this time it had nothing to do with being in love. I was petrified.
“Ooh. Right,” I said, “Yeah. He hates us. Let’s get out of here.”
I was jogging after work on Monday evening. It was muggy out, and I was feeling cranky about “having” to run. Sometimes running feels good, sometimes it feels terrible. That’s just the way it goes. The payoff however, is that it always feels great when you are done, no matter what.
I was way too many minutes away from being done when I took a pit stop at the community center restroom near my neighborhood. While washing my hands, I took a good, long look at myself in the mirror. Woof. I looked horrible. Even though I’d only been jogging for fifteen minutes, I was bright pink all over and slimy, completely drenched in sweat. Bits of dirt and pollen clung to my skin and hair. Who could love me? I was creepy and gross, more creature than human.
I WAS THE HELLBENDER.
I continued my run, feeling surprisingly confident and strong in my new hellbender body.
I used my hellbender mind power to telepathically yell at a group of sneering, skateboarding youths: “DON’T EVEN THINK OF LOOKING AT ME, YOU JUDGMENTAL TEENS! I EAT MY OWN KIND FOR FUN.”
“I COULD DRIVE A COMFY CAR TO GET FROM PLACE TO PLACE, BUT I OPT TO USE MY OWN FEET INSTEAD. WHY? I’M STUBBORN AS HELL!” I said to myself as I huffed and puffed, attempting to scale a particularly steep hill.
“NO WAY ANYONE’S GONNA CATCALL ME WHILE I RUN,” I thought, “THEY WOULDN’T DARE. I AM THE HELLBENDER.”
About ten minutes away from the end of my run, a guy in a car pulled up next to me. I kept running. Hellbenders do not socialize.
“Hey!” he said, driving alongside me, “Why you run?” His command of the English language was not fantastic.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Why? You run. Exercise?”
“Yep!” I said, short and sweet, hoping that would be the end of that.
“You. Beautiful!” the man exclaimed.
The unthinkable was happening. Hellbender was getting hit on. I wanted to hide, but there were no rocks to bury myself under.
“Uh, thanks?” I said, picking up speed.
“Is like…!” my gentleman caller continued.
“Is like what?” I asked.
“Is like…!” he repeated.
“IS LIKE WHAT!?!?” I yelled. Hellbender was getting irritated and flustered. I just wanted to finish my run in peace, and this clown was ruining it for me.
“I like,” the Most Romantic Man in America explained, as best he could, “I like…you.”
These words cast a magic spell of sorts, and I shed my gross salamander skin. I was no longer The Hellbender.
I WAS THE AGGRESSIVE CHIMPANZEE.
I grinned at the idiot like an absolute maniac.
“THANKS, BUT I’M MARRIED!” I hissed at him, all 28 teeth glistening in the sun.
The man’s eyes got huge and he put his hands up in surrender.
“Oh, sorry, sorry!” he bumbled, before driving away in a panic.
“HAVE A GREAT NIGHT!” I shrieked at him as he fled, pounding my chest and jumping up and down. I picked two crickets up off the ground, ate them for fuel, and finished my run.
(Okay, okay. The cricket-eating thing didn’t actually happen. On a serious note, are there any hostile, sweaty single ladies out there looking for love? I might know a guy...)