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Pet Place: Akron Zoo trains new Komodo dragons

By Kathy Antoniotti
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Akron Zoo Animal Trainer April Sidoti uses target training to train one of two two-and-half-year-old komodo dragons to enter and leave the exhibit. Trainers use a laser pointer and a small target and try to get the dragons to touch them and they are rewarded with food when they hit the spot. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal)

Everyone who visits the Akron Zoo’s Education Center, better known as the Komodo Kingdom, has met TNT. After all, the center was named for him, one of the most powerful and largest lizard species in the world.

Until recently, TNT, considered an adult at 14, has been the grand poobah of his kingdom, outliving a female Komodo dragon that died of old age several years ago.

TNT is a 145-pound, 9-foot-long reptile that could live up to the age of 25 in captivity.

Little seems to faze him — including the inclusion in his domain of two rambunctious youngsters.

The newcomers, 2½-year-old females, just might give the old guy a run for his money. The “girls,” Draco and Charlie, came from the Denver Zoo in December after the Association of Zoos and Aquariums gave the directive for the move.

“The great thing about these two is that they are really active. There are lots of things in the exhibit. They can explore the trees, the digging pit and the water,” said David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services.

Keepers bury food in the loose dirt pit as an enrichment activity to keep them engaged.

But TNT, for the most part, enjoys a pretty sedentary life, moving slowly around the exhibit that was built to meet a dragon’s particular needs, including heated floors and rocks.

Komodo dragons originate in the wilds of Indonesia, but like Charlie and Drago, TNT was born in captivity, coming to Akron from the Miami Zoo more than eight years ago, said Barnhardt.

TNT will never be in the exhibit at the same time as the youngsters, said senior Komodo Kingdom keeper Joe Golgosky of Garrettsville.

“They are solitary as adults,” he said. When not in the exhibit, TNT is kept in a separate area, and the youngsters will someday have to be separated too.

But for now, the 4-foot-long newcomers will be in the exhibit from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. (starting at 10 a.m. when the zoo goes to summer hours May 1) and are currently undergoing training as the newest members of the zoo’s menagerie.

Dragons are cannibalistic and opportunistic eaters. For most of us, training a dragon could be fraught with danger.

Last week, Golgosky and animal keeper April Sidoti of Cuyahoga Falls showed no fear while teaching the girls to “target” or touch a spot, using chunks of fresh meat offered at the end of long-handled tweezers as a reward.

“They are very curious. That makes training a lot easier for us,” said Sidoti.

Zoo patrons accustomed to watching the slow-moving TNT are in for a treat, said Barnhardt, who believes the zoo will see a spike in attendance as word gets out about the new reptiles.

“This has always been one of our most popular exhibits,” said Barnhardt. “To have two juveniles is a great opportunity for us.”

But first, the girls must be trained to move in and out of their exhibit doors. Or they might need to be separated on occasion for medical exams and for recall, when necessary, said Golgosky.

Initially, Charlie showed an interest in an infrared laser pointer that takes the temperatures of the water, rocks and floor of the dragons’ exhibit twice each day so caretakers can make sure it stays warm, 105-115 degrees.

“We noticed Charlie was reacting to it,” said Golgosky. Hence, it became a training aid. She quickly learned that if she touched the red spot made by the laser, a treat would come her way.

Draco’s curiosity was originally aroused by a target stick, and she learned that if she touched it with her nose, she likewise would receive her red meat treat.

It didn’t take long before both dragons were responding correctly to both tools.

As the group of zoo workers watching the girls explore their new surroundings grew larger, Golgosky mentioned he had never seen any of the dragons swim in the pond that abuts the exhibit window, not even TNT.

As if on cue, one of the young lizards waded into the pond, swam across the water, crawled up on a rock and looked at the spectators that were looking back at her.

My guess is that training these youngsters will be a cinch.

Other animal events

16th Annual Regional Pet Adoptathon — 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. May 4, Medina National Guard Armory, 920 Lafayette Road, Medina. Animals, shows, demonstrations, shopping and food. 330-725-9754.

Low Cost Spaying and Neutering — Cats Having Alterations Professionally Inc. (C.H.A.P.) has canceled its May clinic and rescheduled it to June 1. The low-cost mobile spay and neuter surgeries are offered for cats and kittens at 180 E. South St., Akron. Kittens need to be 12 weeks old, weigh at least 3 pounds and be in good health. Services are available for family pets, friendly strays and feral cats that do not have AIDS or feline leukemia. $40 male cat, $60 female. Low-cost vaccines, flea/tapeworm/ear mite treatments, nail trimming and ear-tipping for feral cats will be available. Registration is required at 330-724-6181.

Forever Boston T-Shirts for Marathon Bombing Victims — The Fish and Bone, an urban pet boutique one block away from the site of last week’s Boston Marathon bombings, is selling T-shirts for dogs, adults and kids as a fundraiser for One Fund Boston, to help the people most affected by the bombing. View the T-shirts at: www.blog.thefishandbone.com/2013/forever-boston-t-shirts. For more information on The One Fund visit: www.onefundboston.org.

Kathy Antoniotti writes about pets for the Akron Beacon Journal. She is unable to help locate, place or provide medical attention for an individual animal. If you have an idea or question about pets, write her at the Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640; call 330-996-3565; or send an email to kantoniotti@thebeaconjournal.com.


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