THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HANS F. KOENIG
A Tribute to a Lifelong Friend and Associate
Orion McElroy and Gerald Keown
Hans Koenig 1955 – 2013 photo by Krista Koenig Bakke
On January 18, 2013 the Southwestern Center for Herpetological Research (SWCHR) lost Board Member Hans F. Koenig to a massive heart attack at the age of 57. However, Hans’ sudden and unexpected death was a much greater loss than just that of an Association Board Member. He was first and foremost a devoted husband, father, brother, and son. He was a retired dedicated conservation law enforcement officer, a passionate and knowledgeable herpetologist, a conservationist, and a steadfast, true friend to many. He made the world a better place for those around him. For both of us, Hans’ death left an empty space in our hearts. We have lost a fellow herper and a true friend of more than forty years. For those that never had the pleasure of really knowing our comrade, we want to share a bit more of Hans’ life with you.
Hans was born in San Francisco, California on May 20, 1955 to Enna and Alexander Koenig. As a child Hans became interested in reptiles and amphibians, canvassing the hillside near his Novato, California home and often bringing home a snake or two.
In 1967 at the age of 12 Hans and his family moved to Reno, Nevada where he attended junior high and high school. He was active in the Boy Scouts and achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. His interest in reptiles and amphibians soon developed into a passionate and lifelong interest. He began building a vast collection of ‘herps’ from around the world, keeping his bedroom walls lined with row after row of cages. After visiting his younger sister’s class at school to talk about and show some of his snakes, Hans soon found himself invited back to do an encore presentation for the entire school assembled in the school auditorium. His snake talks became so popular he was frequently excused from classes to go to other schools in the area to talk about and show his snakes until he graduated from Reno High School in 1973.
High school student Hans Koenig (above) in 1973 at one of his many educational snake talks
displays an Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi). Photographer Unknown
After attending a local community college for a semester, Hans entered the University of Nevada – Reno. During his high school and university years Hans forged a number of friendships with other serious herpers including Ira Larivers III, Orion McElroy, and Gerald Keown. These friendships and others would span the next 40+ years of his life. Hans graduated from the University of Nevada – Reno with a degree in zoology in 1978.
After graduation from the University of Nevada – Reno, Hans’ life took a path that would lead him half-way around the world to Africa. In 1978 he made an initial trip to spend a summer with his father who was at that time working in Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe). He liked what he saw during his initial visit and in 1980 he found himself and good friend Ira Larivers back in Africa…this time in South Africa where Hans worked the first part of the year as the Assistant Curator at the well-known Transvaal Snake Park.
Hans Koenig (left) with a group of fellow game wardens in 1981 at the Pilanesberg Game Reserve
in Bophuthatswana (Now a part of South Africa) Photographer Unknown
During the latter part of 1980 Hans was hired as a Conservation Officer (Game Warden) by the government of Bophuthatswana (now a part of South Africa). He was assigned to the Pilanesberg Game Reserve. Ira Larivers soon joined Hans in Bophuthatswana. Hans remained in that position until his contract expired in 1983. Having spent several years in Africa he decided to return home to the United States. Ira drove him to the airport in Johannesburg for his flight home. That was the last time the two friends would ever see each other. Ira never returned to the U.S. and presently lives and works in Harare, Zimbabwe. During the next 30 years Hans and Ira remained friends and stayed in touch via letters, phone and email.
Ira Larivers (left) and Hans Koenig (right) in 1982 while they were both working as game wardens at the
Pilanesberg Game Reserve in Bophuthatswana (Now a part of South Africa) Photographer Unknown
Shortly after Hans returned home his mother introduced him to Heidi Baldau, a nurse whom she worked with at Saint Mary’s Hospital. They hit it off and began dating. They were married on October 10, 1987. Hans was 32 and Heidi was 27. Their first child Krista was born in 1988. While Hans was still trying to determine what he wanted to do with his life back in the U.S. he worked with his brother Bill who operated a landscape supply business in Novato, California. He also served as a Reserve Game Warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. In 1988 he went to work for the Nevada Department of Wildlife where he completed his peace officer training at the Nevada POST academy in Carson City, Nevada. He only worked for the Nevada Wildlife Department for a short time before trading that job in for a position as a Game Warden with the Arizona Game and Fish Department in 1989. His first assignment with the Arizona Game and Fish Department took him to the “Arizona Strip” (the remote portion of Arizona located between the Colorado River and the Utah state line). The lack of available housing in that part of Arizona resulted in his assigned duty station being located across the state line in Saint George, Utah. Hans eventually became the Arizona Game and Fish Field Supervisor for the “Arizona Strip”. Their son Bill was born in 1993 and son John followed in 2000. Hans was thrilled with being the father of three wonderful children and both he and Heidi were devoted parents involved with all aspects of their children’s activities. It could be said that Hans was not a father of three children but rather three fathers of 3 individual and unique children, making a point to become interested in and taking an active role in each individual child’s particular interests.
While working as the Field Supervisor for the “Arizona Strip, Hans met Dan Garcia de la Cadena who at the time was the District Staff Biologist for the North Kaibab Ranger District on the Kaibab National Forest. Their mutual interest in herpetology forged yet another great friendship and Hans was able to impart his knowledge and experience of breeding a variety of species of snakes to Dan who became very active in herpetoculture and in particular the breeding of rosy boas and a variety of colubrids. Eventually this resulted in a business partnership Between Hans and Dan which they named Southwest Herpetoculture (SW Herps for short). They attended many of the IRBA shows in San Diego and became well known and respected in the rosy boa and colubrid market with the popularity of southwest/Baja rosys and the Hypomelanistic Honduran milksnake. Hans really enjoyed meeting people and making new friends, as well as seeing old ones. Many were just amazed at his academic knowledge of herpetology and how well read he was. In addition, SW Herps had developed a website on Kingsnake in the mid-90s which featured Randy Limburg’s albino rosy boa, for many it was probably the first time it was seen other than at a show. Around 1998 SW Herps acquired one of the first vanishing pattern male hypomelanistic Hondurans from Bruce Miller of northern California. The neonate was beautiful with a reduced black pattern. To his credit, Hans was able to raise and breed this hypo male in approximately 8 months after acquiring it to his adult female “tangerine dream” (which as a result, proved out to be a het-hypo) and double clutched her. An incubator malfunction caused the first clutch to be lost but the second clutch hatched out hypos and I believe all of the eggs were viable. Later others would receive the credit for a similar feat, but typically only a few eggs hatched in those clutches; this is an excellent example of Hans utilizing his vast knowledge and experience acquired over the years to achieve what was not considered possible at the time. Unfortunately the hypo male did not live more than a month or two after the Fall IRBA show and was lost due to an unknown illness. In 2000 both Hans and Dan made career moves and their business partnership was mutually disbanded, but once again their friendship like so many others remained intact and strong through the years that followed.
Hans Koenig displaying a pair of California Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula californiae)
while living in Saint George, Utah. Photographer Unknown
In 2001 Hans transferred to the Tucson office of the Arizona Game and Fish Department as a Field Supervisor. Whenever there was a situation or an issue arose with the AZGF involving reptiles or amphibians Hans was always their ‘go-to person’. He spent the remainder of his career with AZGF in Tucson where he was constantly educating the public about reptiles via any outlet available to him, be it TV, newspaper articles, classroom presentations, or other public presentations in various venues, including annual presentations at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, and to numerous scout troops. He was a member of the Tucson Herpetological Society (THS) and also served as a board member of that organization for several years. He published several articles and papers in herpetological journals and contributed range extension records to Dr. Robert C. Stebbins for use in the revision of his popular Peterson Field Guide Western Reptiles and Amphibians. While stationed in Tucson, Hans also completed a certification program at Arizona State University and became a Certified Public Manager (CPM).
Hans Koenig (left) and Orion McElroy (right) man Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Venomous Reptile Exhibit
at the International Sportsmans Expo in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Randy Babb
After nineteen years of service, Hans retired from the Arizona Game and Fish Department in 2008. After his retirement, he accepted a position with the State of Idaho as the Project Manager for the Upper Salmon Basin Watershed Program. He and his family moved to Salmon, Idaho for him to purse his new ‘retirement job.’ While living in Salmon, Hans was baptized and confirmed into the Catholic faith. He also joined and was active in the Knights of Columbus.
Throughout his life Hans had always maintained and worked with a unique collection of reptiles in his off time. Over the years he had bred everything from hypomelanistic Honduran Milk Snakes to Rosy Boas, to Eastern Indigo Snakes. At the time of his death he was working with a small colony of legally obtained rare Cochise County Milk Snakes (Lampropeltis triangulum celaenops).
When the Southwestern Center for Herpetological Research was first founded, Hans was one of the first to step up and offer to help. He joined as a Charter Member and became one of SWCHR’s staunch supporters. He felt very strongly about the Association’s purpose and objectives. In 2010 he was elected to serve as Board Member at Large, a position he held until his untimely death in 2013.
During the two months that have passed since Hans’ death, the two of us have spent many hours gathering information and reminiscing about Hans and selecting tidbits that would best describe what our friendship with Hans was about and show his character.
Orion shares two recollections:
I first met and really talked to Hans in 1972 in our junior year biology class. The classroom was separated by two-seat desks that were arranged for students by alphabetical order, by their last names. Hans and I shared a desk together that year. I had seen him many times before then and am sure he had seen me but when we shared that desk each day, we got to know one another. For one reason or another we got off to a conversation on reptiles-snakes in particular. He had a few captives at his house and so did I. It was amazing to me that he knew the Latin (scientific) names of many of the species. I did too. I thought Ira Larivers and I were the only ones weird enough to devote our time and effort in this direction. I told Hans that he should talk to Ira about reptiles. Hans had shared his homeroom class with Ira for the past two years but didn’t know him. He thought Ira was a “geek” and hadn’t taken the time to get to know him. When Hans and Ira sparked up a conversation, that was it; they became inseparable. I should add that Hans and I would have probably never have become such close friends if it hadn’t been for the animals we were so passionate about. The fascination of reptiles on both our parts led to a friendship that would last a lifetime. Hans was so much fun. He was so sarcastic, but in an appropriate manner. He always put a smile on my face with his comments and actions. We graduated from high school and started college the same fall semester. I dropped out eventually and joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1975. Ira’s father passed away in 1977. I made it home to his funeral service that year. This was the last time I saw Hans for a long time. This was also the last time I have ever seen Ira. Hans made it a point to look me up years later while as I was living in Bagdad, Arizona after he had spoken to my mother and found out where I was. We continued our friendship throughout the years as if it had never been interrupted. He hadn’t changed a bit as I recall.
In the spring of 1974 I was bitten by a Great Basin Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus lutosus) on my left wrist. This was a juvenile individual I had captured out at a snake den a little earlier that year. Not knowing how bad the bite would affect me I immediately called Ira for his advice. We decided that he would come to my house to evaluate things before taking any action. Ira arrived about 45 minutes later and determined that the bite was indeed serious enough to warrant medical attention. We arrived at Washoe Medical Center about 10 minutes later. It had been a little over an hour since I had been envenomated. It was on a Sunday and the available medical staff wasn’t quite sure what to do. After Ira’s coaching and insistence they finally decided to call in my family doctor, Dr. Bottsford, who just happened to be up on the ski slopes on Mt. Rose but immediately came in to assess the situation. It was now a little over three hours into the incident and I was not liking it at all. My left arm had swollen up to my elbow and was becoming quite painful. Ira convinced Dr. Bottsford to start antivenin (what it was called at the time) injections and thus the first real treatment began. After several hours of shots, increasing the dosage in intervals, they finally decided there was no more that could be done so they put me in a room to constantly evaluate me. Hans had dropped in that evening to check me out and told me, “Let me know when they release you. I will come by to get you out.” After four more days in the hospital, the doctor declared during his morning check up on me that there was basically no reason for me to stay there any longer and that he would be writing an order for my release. I took that as “a get out of jail card” and immediately called on Hans. He was thrilled I was getting out and asked me what I needed. I told him that I didn’t have any clothing. “No problem,” he said; “I will stop by your house and get you something. By the way,” he exclaimed, “we are going out to Pyramid Lake for a little herp outing after I get you out.” Sure enough, Hans was at the hospital within the hour. I got dressed and we headed to the lake. I really wasn’t aware that I was supposed to be formally released from the hospital and I guess they were frantic, looking for me while Hans and I were out having a good time. When I got home later in the afternoon, I got a big “ass chewing” from my worried mother who had to take me back to the hospital to sign a whole lot of paperwork and then be wheeled out to the parking lot in a wheelchair. I told them there was really no need for the special treatment, as I had been having a wonderful time at the lake with my good buddy, but they insisted on following protocol.
Gerald shares several short recollections:
One of the earliest things that comes to mind when I think of the early days of my friendship with Hans is how casually things were done back in those days. Hans and I would frequently exchange live specimens with each other. He would send me things from Nevada and I would send him things from my native South Texas. There was no buying and selling. In fact, with us there was not even any true exchanging or trading of animals. When I went out in the field and found things that I thought maybe Hans would be interested in, I would just package them up often in a old cigar box fastened together only with twine. I mailed them at the post office by Special Delivery for a dollar or two. No one thought anything about just mailing the stuff. He would do the same with me. I never knew when a ‘care package’ would be arriving, or what it would contain until I opened it. Once there was a Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) inside. I had no clue as to what it was and it took a couple of days for me to get it identified. My young wife certainly was not impressed when I finally told her what it was.
Sometime, while Hans was in Africa, we lost touch with each other. It was not until years later, after Hans had been stationed in St. George with the Arizona Game and Fish Department, that we were reunited. Hans was working deer hunters in the ‘Arizona Strip’ when he stopped into a hunting camp to check out several hunters. One of those hunters happened to be a South Texas Sheriff. Hans and the Sheriff struck up a conversation and when he learned the Sheriff was from South Texas, Hans told him he had lost touch with an old friend (me) who had been a law enforcement officer down in South Texas. Much to his surprise the Sheriff told Hans that he knew me and that I had changed agencies several times over the past few years chasing after a career. He told Hans I was now with a state agency working out of Austin and gave him my contact information. The next afternoon I was startled to hear from Hans after not knowing where he was for a number of years. That afternoon we picked up right where we left off years before and we never drifted apart again even though we have always lived in different states.
I recall visiting Hans and his family in Tucson in 2002. We spent a day herping in the Santa Rita Mountains. My main target on that trip was to find a Green Rat Snake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia). Until then I had never seen one in the wild. Hans casually said, “No problem. We’ll go out and find one in the morning. You can always count on finding them in certain areas in the early morning hours before it warms up.” I was a tad bit skeptical, but sure enough we hit the spot he was talking about the next morning and turned off the pavement onto a jeep tail. In less than 5 minutes there one was…a Green Rat Snake crossing the jeep trail just ahead of us. I jammed the Tahoe into park and jumped out running up to the snake. Then I just stood there looking at the snake in awe. I could not believe it. Finally, Hans asked me if I was going to pick it up or just stand there and watch it crawl away. I finally came to my senses and grabbed the snake.
Gerald Keown (left) and Hans Koenig (right) with a Green Rat Snake (Senticolis triaspis intermedia)
after a day of herping in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona in 2002. Photo by Krista Koenig Bakke
After my retirement from the State of Texas, we moved to Cody, Wyoming for a few years. Hans and his family visited my wife and I there in June of 2006. I recall us spending a cool wet summer day showing them Yellowstone National Park. Hans was looking forward to retirement and he and Heidi were checking out parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as possible places to move to once he did retire. That would be the last time I would ever see Hans in person.
In November of 2006 I underwent cancer surgery in Billings, Montana. After I was out of recovery and back in my room, my wife told me that Hans had just called to see how my surgery went and how I was doing. He was the first call that she received after my surgery. But that is the kind of true friend Hans was…sincere and caring. We moved back to Texas from Wyoming in 2007, but seldom did a week pass that Hans and I did not visit via phone or email. We had our last phone visit about two weeks before he had his fatal heart attack while at work in Salmon, Idaho on January 18, 2013. Heidi rode with him in the ambulance to the hospital and she stayed at his side in the ER until he passed away just a few minutes after arriving.
Hans left behind his wife Heidi, daughter Krista Koenig Bakke (Ryan), sons Bill and John, father Alexander Koenig (Maria), brother Bill Koenig (Louise), sister Gretchen Koenig Paul (Chris), sister Enna Marie Turrold (Steve), and a wealth of long-time sincere friends and associates. Yes, he really did make the world a better place for all of those he surrounded himself with.