Not all Dragons Breathe Fire

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

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

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 —> Read More