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Not all Dragons Breathe Fire

By Bill Orrico

[Bill Orrico prepared this piece in celebration of the American Association of Zookeepers’ National Zookeeper Week, July 19-25]

Dragons have been present in human folklore for centuries, appearing as heroes and villains in the pages of children’s books, Hollywood summer blockbusters, and popular television shows. But to me, dragons are just another part of my day job.

As the senior wild animal keeper for the Herpetology Department at the Bronx Zoo in New York City, I am responsible for the care and management of the four Komodo dragons that are currently part of our collection. While these dragons do not breathe fire and have not stolen away princesses, they still possess the beauty, power, and majesty of their fictional brethren.

Native to the eastern Indonesian islands of Komodo, Flores, Rinca, Padar, Gili Motang, and Nusa Kode, Komodo dragons are the largest living lizards in the world. Males can reach a total length of 10 feet and weigh over 200 pounds.

One of the Bronx Zoo’s young Komodo dragons on display in its exhibit. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS
One of the Bronx Zoo’s young Komodo dragons on display in its exhibit. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

Komodo dragons are also very intelligent. The dragons under my care have individual personalities. Some are curious, always stopping to smell every last pebble with a flick of their tongues. Others are too stubborn to budge from a particular spot.

As a zookeeper, I determine how we get these enormous predators to go where we want them to without upsetting them endangering our staff of five trained keepers. Often this can be accomplished by offering the lizards food. The dragons catch on fast. They learn that leaving us alone will result in a reward and that is a good recipe for a stubborn animal.

We also train each dragon to “target,” or touch a specific object on command, and “shift” through open doors and passages or enter crates to help facilitate large moves. Additional trained behaviors, specific to each dragon, help further facilitate husbandry or just provide additional mental enrichment.

I’m often asked what I get out of working with animals in the Bronx Zoo. The answer boils down to this: it gives me the opportunity to do my part to help wildlife worldwide. I see the role of zoos as centers of outreach, education, and conservation. When zoo guests form bonds with the dragons they are more likely to become invested in their protection in the wild.

The connection can only be formed after watching a dragon explore its exhibit, search for a treat, or observe a wild bird that has flown into its enclosure. It’s a sense of realness that a television show or storybook cannot match. If one visitor leaves the zoo wanting to know more, to get involved, to support conservation, then the day was a success.

The animals at the zoo serve as ambassadors to their wild cousins. The Bronx Zoo is an active participant of the Komodo Dragon Species Survival Plan (SSP), a program of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

A Komodo dragon successfully “targets” an object by flicking its tongue at it. The dragon is then rewarded with food. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS
A Komodo dragon successfully “targets” an object by flicking its tongue at it. The dragon is then rewarded with food. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher ©WCS

SSPs exist to manage populations of animals in zoo and aquarium collections, but they also support wild populations of those same animals, often by providing funding to researchers and conservation groups. For instance, some funds go to the Komodo Survival Program (KSP), an Indonesian organization that has been monitoring and researching populations of these large lizards for years.

Earlier this year, I joined the biologists of the KSP during their annual population survey of the dragons on Komodo Island. We spent eight days trapping dragons of all ages and sizes. The population of wild dragons on Komodo is estimated to be around 3,000 individuals. These giant lizards are the only large predator on the island. They mainly feed on Sunda deer, water buffalo, and wild pigs.

As it was the end of April, just the beginning of the dry season, Komodo and the surrounding islands were still lush and green. We trekked through the patchy forests and grassy savannas twice each day to check our traps. Trapped dragons would see us coming and they’d put on quite a loud display, hissing and thrashing in an effort to scare us away.

We secured the jaws, limbs, and tail while carefully removing each dragon from the trap. Once the animals were secured, the team collected data on the animals, including size, weight, and a number of measurements of the head. An identification transponder microchip was injected into each animal before its release so that scientists could track its growth and movement.

Bill Orrico helps restrain a wild young adult Komodo dragon in Indonesia while KSP biologists take measurements. Photo by Achmad Ariefandy
Bill Orrico helps restrain a wild young adult Komodo dragon in Indonesia while KSP biologists take measurements. Photo by Achmad Ariefandy

It was an incredible experience to work with Komodos in the wild.  The dragons at the zoo have become very accustomed to keeper presence and are often more curious than fierce. It was not until I attempted to restrain a large wild dragon that I really understood how incredibly strong these lizards are. Their rough scales scratched at my skin and their intense muscles required all my strength to resist. They are perfect predators, evolved to ambush large powerful prey.

I came away from the experience with a much greater understanding of the needs of my animals. It allows me to replicate their habitat to maximize their well being at the zoo. Why? To ensure that they become even better ambassadors for our visitors, who may be pleased to discover that dragons are not found only in fairy tales.

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Bill Orrico is a senior wild animal keeper at the Bronx Zoo – one of five wildlife parks operated in New York City by WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society).