Aug 28, 2023 - Things to Do

Komodo dragons take center stage at Nashville Zoo

Lil Sebastian

Lil Sebastian. Photo: courtesy of the Nashville Zoo

Feeding Komodo dragons takes the awareness, planning and apprehension that an explosives expert brings to disassembling a ticking time bomb.

What's happening: The enigmatic giant lizards are the new featured attraction at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. They can grow up to 10 feet and 300 pounds, according to the zoo, and are so smart they can learn their names and respond to vocal commands.

  • The dragons are typically friendly, even allowing zookeepers to stroke their backs like you would a pet dog. But they can be temperamental, lethal predators with shark-like teeth structures and poisonous saliva accompanying their bites.
  • Sharon Stone's now ex-husband famously found himself on the wrong end of a Komodo dragon attack in 2001.

How it works: A team of two zoo staffers uses large plastic riot gear shields and giant sticks for protection when they inch into the Komodo dragon exhibit to feed them meals of frozen rats.

Why it matters: The Komodo dragon exhibit is the latest addition to the rapidly expanding Nashville Zoo. It cost $4.5 million and is touted as the largest exhibit of its kind in terms of space in the Americas.

Zoom in: For Nashville Zoo curator of ectotherms Dale McGinnity, Komodo dragons are more than a passing professional interest. He went to live among the dragons in Indonesia in the 1990s, spending eight months subduing the animals and collecting valuable blood and saliva samples.

What he's saying: McGinnity said he learned during his trips to Indonesia that multiple Komodo dragons can live together, but the Nashville Zoo is at the forefront of such an exhibit.

  • The Nashville exhibit currently has two adult males and two females, with plans to add more soon.
  • McGinnity raves about the dragons' intelligence. "I can be in a crowd of people and whistle and say, 'Hey Lil Sebastian!' And he'll pick his head up and look at me." (Lil Sebastian, the largest dragon on display at 9 feet long, is named in honor of the miniature horse from the TV show "Parks and Recreation.")

Yes, but: McGinnity says when something clicks in the dragons' brain making them think food is near, they can become very "primordial."

  • In the wild, the dragons have a sensational sense of smell, showing the ability to find a carcass from 5 miles away, McGinnity says.
  • "They typically wait along a game trail and bite a deer or a water buffalo. Their really lethal bacteria will kill the deer within, like, four days. Then they use their sense of smell to find the carcass."

What's next: The plan is to eventually add a carcass feeding at the zoo, with a goat hind end hung up so spectators can understand how the dragons feed in the wild.

Zoom out: The Nashville Zoo paired its new exhibit with a $50,000 donation for Komodo dragon conservation. There are between 3,000 and 5,000 of the endangered lizards living in the wild, McGinnity says, adding that the dragons are relatively easy to breed in zoos.

The bottom line: "Everybody who has come through has just loved it, especially kids. That gets me fired up more than anything," McGinnity says.


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