Dragon days

Hello again! I’m back here blogging after a long break, inspired partly by a new year but especially by some of the zoo encounters I had at the end of the old one. In 2015, Christmas and New Year’s Eve both fell on Thursdays, my weekly volunteer day. And both days brought a remarkable batch of families to the zoo — inquisitive kids with parents who encouraged them to linger and ask me questions, or who saw me with an artifact and pulled their kids over to take a look. As one dad said to his son, “Here — come learn something.”

komodo monitor

If I want to pack a lot of facts into one half-hour session, I stand by the Komodo dragon exhibit and hold the Komodo-jaw artifact. Since the passing of an elderly Komodo monitor named Gasher, who received acupuncture treatments to ease his arthritis, the exhibit’s sole occupant has been this young guy, whose name I don’t know yet. (The Komodo is one of those animals that doesn’t necessarily have a “public” name, but when you attend volunteer update seminars, you learn what zookeepers call them.)

komodo descending

How can I tell this guy is young? Aside from his relative smallness (a male Komodo can get up to 200 pounds and 7 feet long), he still has a blush of color on his scales, and he still climbs the big log in the middle of his exhibit. Baby Komodos climb trees soon after they hatch and stay up there for several years, evading hungry predators — including their own parents. Since they’re highly endangered, with a native habitat restricted to the Indonesian islands, feasting on their own offspring is not the smartest survival strategy for the world’s largest living lizards. (In terms of interesting facts that are also kind of alarming and scary, Komodos win hands-down. I’ve learned out to leave out details like that one when I’m talking to smaller or more sensitive-looking kids.)

komodo tail

When I’m standing by the exhibit holding the jawbone artifact , I show kids how a Komodo, like its reptilian cousin the snake, can unhinge its jaw to swallow a small animal whole or take big sloppy bites of a much larger animal — possibly even a water buffalo. Komodos can eat 80 percent of their body weight in a single meal — keeping in mind, of course, that for these and other predators, there’s no guarantee of a meal every day in the wild. At the zoo, they’re fed various meats including chicken and quail — and live in a warm, safe, tropical space where nobody (resident or visitor) gets eaten at all.