“Shithead was a unique individual”….the quirks and foibles of Komodo Dragons

Guest post by John Romano-Science Department Head at Girard College and Komodo dragon advocate

“Holy Shit” I whispered to myself as I looked down at my hand “….that is Komodo dragon blood.”  I will never forget the first time I interacted with a Komodo dragon at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.. I was helping them transport a recently darted captive born dragon to the vet for a checkup and after picking up the dragon and putting it on a stretcher the evidence that my childhood dreams had come to fruition were clearly smeared all over my right hand.  I let it stay there for a few hours, partly to bask in the enjoyment, and partly in hopes that it will somehow enter my bloodstream, mutate and turn me into a Komodo Man. Sadly, this did not happen.

What did happen though, is that I got to meet multiple Komodo dragons and work with researcher Trooper Walsh, the man responsible for the first breeding of Komodos outside of Indonesia. Not quite as amazing as attaining powers of the world’s largest reptile, but still an amazing event for a 20-year-old undergraduate who has obsessed over reptiles, especially Komodo dragons for most of his life.  So on most days when I was done with my various science classes at the University of Maryland I would hop on the metro and head to the Woodley Park/National Zoo stop and make my way to the Reptile House to meet with Trooper and work with the dragons.

To the general public reptiles are soulless, cold-blooded, organisms that operate on a simple feedback system.  While I agree, they are soulless and cold-blooded (although I was using the layman’s definition previously and now I am not), they are not just a simple feedback machine. In fact, we have found that some reptiles will have what humans would call a personality. Some are mean, some are tolerant, some are explorative, some are timid, and some, like people, just want to eat and sit around basking.  But nowhere is personality more prevalent in reptiles than with Komodo dragons.

In his original study on Komodo island Walter Auffenberg noted unique behaviors that were congruent with individuals he marked for identification.  Using regular house paint he would trap dragons and paint numbers on their side to identify them.  One large individual in particular, “19w” was discovered to be very inquisitive and was even found to have followed his children around the island.  So inquisitive was this dragon that there is an anecdote of Auffenberg observing the dragon from a blind, when he came over and began darting his 18 inch long tongue in and out of the viewing hole.  Auffenberg being a little gregarious decided to grab the dragon’s tongue to see his response! The dragon obviously struggled, Auffenberg let him go and the dragon went on his way, but he always kept a watchful eye on 19w.  Auffenberg has various notes of what seemed to be unique personalities even in wild populations.

So let me give you my favorite example by introducing you to a dragon who we affectionately call “Shithead”.  Zookeepers, especially reptile keepers are known to have a penchant for fun and humor. So there was no hesitation in accurately naming this individual.  “Shithead” was a unique individual. As soon as he came out of the egg he bit the keeper on the thumb severely lacerating him…..and the rest, as they say, is history.  “Shithead” was nothing but hostile for his tenure at the National Zoo, we needed shields, sticks, and multiple people to properly work his cage.  He was constantly charging us, trying to attack us, and making every moment with him a tension filled scene of yelling commands and feigning movements to distract him long enough to clean his cage.

Dragons are no joke either. Once they reach a juvenile to young adult size they can do a lot of damage.  Even tame ones can render a human helpless with the flick of their tail.  Walsh, during an attempt to maneuver a friendly adult dragon by the name of Friendty out of a burrow had the tail under his arm trying to manipulate the dragon into position when a slight whip of the tail tore Walsh’s bicep from the bone.  This was not an attack, but simply a “Nope, don’t touch me”.  Friendty was not an aggressive dragon, nor was he trying to hurt Walsh.  He was simply a strong animal looking to be left alone. Friendty ironically enough, was not only the male who sired the first US clutch, but my first real introduction to a dragon.  Which is a rather unique moment.

Dragons, especially big males, need to know they are king of their territory, so a keeper must be introduced to the animal in an effort to say “Hey, I am going to be coming into your territory, you are the boss, but I am going to visit on occasion. I promise not to eat your food or mate with your females.”  Some keepers, for whatever reason, and even with our nicest dragons were just not welcomed in their cages.  A range of defensive displays would suddenly erupt and that keeper was kept away.  In fact, there was one keeper that all the dragons had a strange disdain for and he was never able to interact with them.  This individual also had the same effect with his colleagues, yet another hat tip for dragons being more intelligent than we give them credit for.  They obviously picked up on the same annoying habits that their human counterparts picked up on as well.

So, picture this. I am at the shift door of the outdoor dragon enclosure.  This is an elevator sized spot where we unlock one door, enter a small glassed-in area, lock the door we just walked through and then have a locked dutch door into the dragon cage.  This prevents there ever being an opening between the dragons cage and the outside.  So there I was, never been inside a dragon cage with an alert dragon, crowd of people watching, and a 10 foot 200 pound dragon was going to decide if I was welcome or not. The crowd of people gathered because of the unique zoo phenomena that a human in a cage will gather more attention than the animal that resides in there.  The public always watches the keeper in the cage intently.  I once had a crowd of people watch me squeegee glass in a snake cage like I was God delivering a new set of commandments.

Walsh was a blunt, intelligent man who did not sugar coat anything.  He looked at me and said “Okay, go in there, sit down Indian style, put your head down and don’t look up, he is going to come over, smell you, may bump you or claw rake you a bit, just keep being submissive, hopefully he likes you.”

“And if he doesn’t” I said.

“Most likely a closed casket, you left an emergency contact right?”

So I went in, and the 10 foot, 200lb object of every childhood, teen, and adult dream of mine walked over to me tongue flicking a mile a minute.  I had no fear, nothing but unbridled admiration and respect beamed from me in Friendty’s direction.  I had to keep reminding myself to keep my head down because I just wanted to look up and observe this animal.  He tongue flicked me, nudged me, and then just as nonchalantly as he walked up to me, he walked off and laid down to bask.  That was that. I was accepted.  The crowd, let out a disgruntled “I can’t believe he didn’t get mauled” sigh and moved along.
The author on the left with Friendty the dragon and Trooper Walsh.

We also used the dragons intelligence to our advantage.  For example, when entering Friendty and Sobat’s (his mate) cage we would utilize whistles or clanging to let them know what we were doing.  If we clanged shovels against the ground it meant we were coming in to clean and there would be no food offered.  If we whistled it meant dinner time.  These were necessary measures for our safety.  Even a good dragon catching the scent of a dead animal could turn real aggressive real fast.  One of the more amusing moments I had before cleaning a dragon cage was standing in the shift room and feeling a strange caressing motion on my back.  I had a shovel in one hand a plexiglass shield in the other (standard equipment in case something goes wrong).  I looked over my shoulder and Walsh had a sly grin on his face as he rubbed a dead rat on my shoulder.  He then opened the cage door, and whistled as he nudged me in.

I had the agility of Spiderman that day my friends, I clung to corners of glass like a gecko climbing a wall.  I made it out unscathed, but I am pretty sure my feet never hit dirt. Like I said, reptile keepers have a penchant for humor, even if it borders on sadistic.

My favorite dragon was Kraken. Sweet, sweet Kraken, such a good girl this one.  I miss her dearly, named for the Tennyson poem The Kraken she was one of the first dragons born outside of Indonesia and the subject of our play behavior study because of her personality.  She would often steal the notebooks out of keepers pockets and seemingly try to play a game of keep away.  She loved to have her neck scratched.  There exists a picture that I do not own, but if one looked hard enough in the private collection of Trooper Walsh you could find a photo of me dancing with her. Two dragon arms on my shoulder, and her head resting comfortably on me as we swayed back and forth.  While I know my wife finds this image disturbing, this was the most comfortable an awkward reptile nerd like myself has ever been dancing with a girl. Kraken when I met her was a subadult and not yet at a reproductive age.  She was curious, fun, never showed aggression, I would even go so far as to call her trustworthy.  I would treat her much like I would a dog.  A far cry from her brother “Shithead” she was the role model for why everyone should have a pet dragon.

The author with his favorite dragon, “Kraken”

The last dragon of note was a docile young fellow named “Precious”.  Walsh was a huge fan of the “Lord of the Rings” books and named him after Gollum’s favorite name for the one ring, “mmyyyy prreecciioouuss”.  Walsh may not admit it, but I believe that because breeding and caring for these dragons (gifts to President Reagan from the leader of Indonesia at the time) became such a huge part if his life he became obsessed, and when his work finally came to fruition he viewed them much like Gollum viewed the ring…..as his Preciouses.

Precious would go so far as to let you pick him up and handle him.

The author, Precious, and Walsh at the National Zoo.

Hmmm, I just sat and stared at the wall for about 15 minutes.  Please indulge me for a moment and I apologize for the seemingly disjunct course this has taken.

It is strange. It has been 12 years since I worked with dragons.  I don’t think about it often as I am a teacher now and my mind is occupied with all the thoughts, stresses, and needs of being a teacher.  But after reading a recent Nature afield post on dragons I felt a sort of reawakening.  I began digging through old pictures.  Thinking of Kraken, remembering the phone call I got a few years ago telling me she passed due to complications with reproduction.  I was saddened, but never quite reflected on it.  But now I am sitting here, thinking about these dragons, Shithead, Friendty, Precious, sweet Kraken, and I am feeling nostalgic, missing the days of clanging shovels on cement before entering another realm, before entering my childhood dreams.

Sitting there, just scratching the side of Kraken’s neck, a permanent grin that not even a night with the girl of my dreams could have put there, just admiring the animal before me.  No fear, no nervousness, just pure admiration.  I left the zoo and research due to a crisis of faith in the publics understanding of science.  Yearning to reach a younger crowd and get them excited about reptiles I left the realm of dragons, it was difficult, but I believed their future rested on people like me who would infect young people with the same admiration I had.  I still keep various snakes and turtles in my classroom, including my first boa who is now 19 years old. I have an army of student helpers from 7th grade – 12th grade loving reptiles, but something is missing.

The same way a family notes the void a dog leaves behind when it passes I was noting a void where Shithead, Friendty, Precious, and Kraken once filled.  These seemingly soulless, cold-blooded animals that are nothing more than feedback systems were tongue flicking away with curiosity in my head.  No, these are not mindless predators, they are individuals, unique organisms that can be aggressive, tolerant, alert, and playful.  I find myself often wishing I could introduce people to Kraken, forgetting she is gone, wishing I could show them how well we could dance with each other.

So here I am, hoping I made my point in this guest blog for Heidi, starting out with all the intentions of being informative and scientific with my description of dragons…..but falling into a nostalgic state of emotional ramblings about dancing with a dragon named Kraken.

But I guess that’s the point. These are not just mindless predators, they are behaviorally complex lizards with the ability to evoke emotional memories for those that knew them.

Trooper Walsh and Kraken.

Follow John on Twitter @PaleoRomano and check out his blog here!

5 Responses to “Shithead was a unique individual”….the quirks and foibles of Komodo Dragons

  1. You didn’t turn into a Komodo Man from the lizard blood probably because the dragon that bit you wasn’t radioactive. That’s how these things work.

  2. I loved reading this. Thank you.

  3. Pingback: Links 2/27/13 | Mike the Mad Biologist

  4. Great article! I really enjoyed reading it.

  5. An excellent article and I now wish I could meet a dragon. Thank you.

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