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Robert Cooper scoops a salamander from one of the six fish tanks he keeps in a small, unadorned room, its walls just bare cinder block. â€śThis is my big boy,â€ť he says, projecting his voice above the gurgling water. Cooper stretches his heavily tattooed arms and hands out before himâ€”the words â€śhateâ€ť and â€śrageâ€ť are spelled across his knucklesâ€”to reveal the tiny, slippery amphibian twisting in his cupped palms. â€śHe ainâ€™t too happy right now,â€ť he adds. The salamander, an eastern hellbender, is a reclusive species that rarely interacts with its own kind, let alone humans.
Cooper knows what it feels like to be confined in someone elseâ€™s grip. Heâ€™s been a prisoner here at Marion Correctional Institution, in central Ohio, for 15 years. The hellbender he holds and the 11 others in the room are an endangered species endemic to parts of the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. In six months, they will be released into the wild as part of the Ohio Hellbender Partnership, a consortium of zoos, universities, and government agencies collaborating to help the amphibianâ€™s recovery. There is no certain date for Cooperâ€™s release, however. He murdered a woman 15 years ago, when he was 21, and is serving a sentence of 27 years to life.