One of the animals I was asked to work with at the Zoo was a Komodo Dragon. What an honour!! At the time there was only one in the country. The Dragon had been a present from Indonesia to the then President Mandela.
Komodo dragons are the world’s heaviest lizards and can grow to over 3 metres and weight almost 100kgs. They have an incredible sense of smell, using their forked tongue to track down prey (often carrion) for up to 8 kilometres away.
The enclosure that the dragon was being kept in comprised two display areas, and I was asked to train the reptile to move between these two areas on cue. This was necessary so that the door between the two outside enclosures could be closed and the keeper could clean one of the areas in safety. I was asked to get the animal to move between the two outside enclosures within 5 minutes. Komodo dragons move incredibly fast, and have very sharp serrated teeth with which they cut out chunks of their prey. Their mouths are also host to nasty bacteria, so if the Komodo isn’t able to kill its prey immediately, the bacteria in its saliva often kills its prey over the next few days: a prolonged and very painful death. So it was necessary to little to no contact with this animal during the training process.
A challenge to be sure!! How was I going to get this animal to move around whilst standing outside its armour plated glass enclosure? After prolonged consultation with the curator and keepers, it was agreed that the easiest, safest and quickest option would be to use a target stick. This was quickly procured, and a large rag tied to one end. The method we chose to adopt was as follows: because of the animals’ prodigious sense of smell, we decided to stimulate it by dragging its food through one of the display enclosures. So the inter-leading door was opened, and the target stick waggled in the opening. As soon as the dragon spotted the stick and started moving towards it, the keeper would nip back into the night room and secure himself in there. Of course initially the dragon was not moving forward to get to the target stick, but rather to investigate the interesting new smell. In a very short space of time the dragon learnt that the sight of the target meant that on the other side of its outside enclosure would be a scent trail leading to food. Within a few sessions we had our lizard responding to the lure within 2 seconds and zooming in to the other enclosure within 30 seconds of the target being shown to it. Great!!
As I had been given 6 months to get this behaviour on cue, and had achieved it within a week, I asked if there was anything else they’d like their dragon to do. Jokingly they answered that they would like to be able to cut its toenails and take DNA samples for sexing. “OK” I responded, “let’s do it!”
The first thing we did was teach the dragon to go into the night room. This was done so that it learnt to follow the target whenever it was shown, (for a reward), and to go in to whatever area we dictated. We got this behaviour in one session. We locked it in the night room for a short while before targeting it back outside again.
Since the animal was being so cooperative, I asked whether they would like to weigh it to get a measure on its growth over time. They were delighted with the idea. So trusty Pieter the keeper rushed off and got a nice big plank. This was placed on the ground just outside the inter-leading door. Once again we used the target stick and reward to get the dragon to move over the plank in both directions. Once that was OK, the plank was elevated on to a number of bricks, so that the dragon had to climb up on to it. It took a few sessions for our Komodo to be confident about this behaviour.
The day of reckoning arrived!! The veterinary section lent us their scale and we prepared to weigh the animal. We locked it in the one outside area whilst we set up the scale and plank. The measuring device was craftily hidden in the night room. When everyone was in place, the inter-leading door was opened, the target waved and our Komodo casually wandered across, climbed on to the plank and stood there for a good two minutes. (Our lizard weighed in at 35.5 kgs). In fact it seemed to so enjoy the fuss it was causing that we had some difficulty targeting it back in to the other enclosure so that we could dismantle the equipment! So behaviour number 3 was a wrap.
As the Zoo still had the crate that the dragon was flown out in, I thought it would be a good idea to make use of it for the nail cutting and DNA testing. Using the same principle that had been working so well, we taught the dragon to target (walk towards) the stick when it was held on the far side of its wooden crate. By now the lizard was too big to completely fit in the crate, with about ½ metre of its tail remaining outside. But within a fairly short time it was happy to go in and be fed on cue. Once I was convinced that the dragon was happy walking in to the crate, and had learnt how to back out of it, the medical team were called in.
The dragon behaved perfectly. It walked in to the crate on cue, and stayed there whilst the veterinarian cut off fragments of its nails and tissue aspirations which were then sent for DNA testing. The result – a female!!
Komodo dragons have a very interesting survival technique. Probably because they evolved on islands subjected to tropical storms, the females have developed the amazing ability to reproduce on their own. If a mature female (around 5 years old) has lived alone for some years, she is capable of fertilising herself and producing offspring. And all these babies will be males. Because Komodo dragons have a very limited gene pool, it is very important to ensure that they are not related (and allowed to breed) if kept together. It turned out that our female had compatible breeding genes to a male in England. So she was sent to England, and that country in turn sent out two of the males that were asexually produced.
Although it is very difficult to form an emotional tie with a reptile such as a Komodo dragon, I do hope the girl I had the privilege of working with is happy in her new home in England. Hopefully in time a new line of Komodo dragons will be born to her, thereby helping to ensure the survival of the species.