By Don Corrigan
Fans of Missouri hellbenders recently gathered at the Saint Louis Zoo to honor the life and work of Kirkwood’s Karen Goellner. If working with hellbenders can get you into heaven, she is in a good place.
“She put in the hard work to help save the endangered Ozark hellbenders,” said Charlie Hoessle, a renowned herpetologist and director emeritus of the Saint Louis Zoo. “She traveled down to the Ozark streams with many of us who were interested in this species.
“Her late husband, Ron, also was keenly interested in amphibians and fish and snakes,” added Hoessle. “Before I went to the Zoo, he used to come in to my pet shop in Affton and look at all the creatures. Ron and Karen were great for each other and for the hellbenders.”
Hellbenders, sometimes known as “snot otters,” are large, aquatic amphibians. The hellbender has a flat head, wrinkly body and paddle-shaped tail. Its body is dark gray or brown with irregular dark spots along its back.
Like so many animal species whose survival is under threat, hellbenders have problems because of habitat degradation. This includes declines in water quality, erosion issues, silt covering their rocky living places and difficulties producing young in a damaged environment.
Even before humans defiled their favorite living spots, fishermen proved hostile to hellbenders. They viewed them as small monsters hurting trout and bass fishing, so they captured hellbenders and drove stakes through them.
Saint Louis Zoo experts and volunteers have intervened on behalf of hellbenders. They built a nurturing, artificial environment at the Zoo. These tank “streams” allowed them to thrive and reproduce.
The first successful breeding of hellbenders at the Zoo only took place after tender, loving care. They were destined to be reintroduced to their native habitat in waterways like the Current, Jacks Fork and Eleven Point rivers.
A Visual Testimonial
At the memorial for Kirkwood’s Goellner, State Herpetologist Jeff Briggler with the Missouri Department of Conservation noted her lively spirit and her enthusiasm for helping out hellbenders.
Briggler provided a visual testimonial with photo slides taken of Goellner at hellbender happenings in the Missouri Ozarks, and closer to home at the Saint Louis Zoo.
Briggler said Ron and Karen Goellner were instrumental in establishing the propagation facility at the Zoo in 2004 with construction of an “indoor hellbender raceway” for breeding purposes. They also helped form the Ozark Hellbender Working Group.
The hellbender group grew to 100 people over the next decade. The group began working on conservation strategy documents to save hellbenders. Karen was involved with the first release of zoo-reared Ozark Hellbenders to the outdoors.
“Karen was known as the ‘Snack Lady’ on long field days on the rivers,” recalled Briggler. “She would always bring plenty of snacks and hot and cold beverages for hellbender crews. She provided a helping hand by completing datasheets and keep the spirit high among crews.
“Even with the passing of Ron Goellner, Karen stayed actively involved with hellbender conservation in Missouri,” added Briggler. “She got to witness first-hand so many success that have occurred over 15 years.”
The challenge now is to improve habitat in the Ozarks for troubled hellbenders. It’s difficult to restore populations if their favored streams and rivers continue to have increased sediment loads from poor riparian protection.
Mayor of Windsor Forest
Back home in Kirkwood, neighbors say they’ll miss the woman whom they called the “Mayor of Windsor Forest,” a neighborhood south of Big Bend near the St. Louis Community College at Meramec.
“She was a Neighborhood Watch captain and cared about everyone,” said Joan Ruppert. “Karen was an avid walker. One day I saw her walking as I drove up near her. As I got closer, she didn’t turn back, but began waving.
“I pulled next to her and asked: ‘How did you know it was me?’ Karen said, ‘I didn’t know it was you, but I figured the car had to be someone in the neighborhood, and I know everyone.’ That was Karen,” Ruppert recalled.
Dixie Tipton lived across the street from Karen for 37 years. The three Tipton girls found Ron and Karen always available to help whenever the youngsters had to identify and create leaf or bug collections for school.
“They also came to the rescue whenever there was a snake or a salamander that found its way into the house,” said Dixie Tipton. “They even helped me when a bat managed to come down our chimney.”
According to Tipton, Ron was the neighborhood snake expert and Karen was the greatest resource for all things botanical. Tipton said her family plans on planting several trees and milkweed plants in her memory.
“She loved Monarch butterflies and encouraged everyone to plant milkweed for them,” said Tipton. “Before Ron and Karen, we had never heard of hellbenders. We’re so proud of the work Ron did on their behalf and that Karen continued after his death.
“What wonderful neighbors,” added Tipton. “We still imagine her out in her yard caring for plants and animals and greeting everyone with a smile and a wave as they pass. She will always be in our hearts.”