‘Komodotion’ has taken over Knoxville Zoo

Khaleesi, the Komodo dragon that now lives at the Knoxville Zoo, has become a major attraction. According to her handler Stephen Nelson, Komodo dragons are the only animals that will stay with their prey while waiting for it to perish. They also have the ability to undergo parthogenesis, which is a form of asexual reproduction. Upon sexual maturity, Khaleesi could produce young, even though she's not housed with a male dragon. Photo by Chris Cannon

While she does not have wings or breathe fire, Khaleesi is still a dragon princess.

The new addition to the Knoxville Zoo has visitors buzzing, as she has become the first ever Komodo dragon to call Knoxville home.

Her arrival makes the East Tennessee zoo one of only 46 zoos who currently have Komodo dragons. That’s an impressive number, seeing as the number of accredited zoos by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums totals 225.

Standing at her enclosure even for only a few short minutes, it is apparent that she is quickly becoming a favorite of the ever-present crowd.

“A lot of people do like her,” said Stephen Nelson, a Knoxville Zoo herpetologist. “I think they’re going to really like her when she’s big. She’ll be very impressive.”

That’s not to say she is not impressive now. Weighing in at about 8 pounds and measuring close to 4 feet, Khaleesi, named after the dragon princess in George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones,” has a lot of growing left to do.

The 19-month-old female dragon should be full grown between the ages of 5 and 7. At that time, she will be about 8 feet and 80 pounds.

“Komodo Dragons are the largest monitor lizard in the world—largest lizard in the world,” Nelson said. “They are found on the island of Komodo in the South Pacific. There are a couple of other islands that they swim to as well, but Komodo is their stronghold.”

With the Komodo population estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000 dragons, Nelson says the species is not doing great.

However, because they are confined to such a small island, this low number is probably all that can be supported.

“A 10-foot lizard will eat quite a bit,” Nelson said, referencing the average length which the male dragons can reach.

Khaleesi, who began her life at the Los Angeles Zoo, is on an exhibit loan from the Atlanta Zoo.

Knoxville was lucky enough to acquire her through the Species Survival Program (SSP), which represents species that urgently need to be conserved and protected in the wild.

“In such a small area, there’s only so many zoos that can hold a 10-foot lizard,” Nelson said. “[The SSP] have to really coordinate and make sure that they are doing the best job for the species and the survival of them.”

According to public relations representative Tina Rolen, the SSP could ask for Khaleesi back at any time.

However, because she was born with 16 siblings, it is highly unlikely.

Nelson is just glad to be working with such an amazing creature.

“I think it’s pretty awesome,” Nelson said. “She’s definitely one of the cool animals that I work with here. Most turtles walk around, and they’re happy to be fed. She’s very interactive and inquisitive.”

According to Rolen, Khaleesi is a very intelligent animal. She can even recognize her keepers.

Nelson says he would go so far as to say that she recognizes different keepers, because she reacts differently to different people.

However, to all those that thought the movie, “How to Train Your Dragon” was just a cartoon, the Knoxville zookeepers are proving that training a dragon isn’t as hard as it may seem.

“They’ve actually been able to work with Khaleesi to target train her,” Rolen said. “They can actually put a target down, something they’ve trained her to come up and touch her nose to, and that allows them a lot more stability … If they’re trying to do a physical exam or draw blood, or if they just have to shift her to another part of the exhibit, she’s smart enough to know, ‘There’s the stick with the little red target on the end. I’ve got to move over there.’”

Nelson knows that will pay off in the future.

“It’s not so much a big deal now for veterinary care for us to train her,” Nelson said. “When she gets to be 8 feet and 80 pounds, that’s a big lizard. It’s pretty critical that we have her trained before that.”

For now, Khaleesi is just living the good life. While numerous spectators stop by for peaks at this soon-to-be-giant lizard, she is taking in some scenery as well.

“She was a little nervous about being in the exhibit,” Rolen said. “[The keepers] were a little concerned the first few days … After she went out for the first day, she kind of [found it interesting]. She likes to watch the visitors as much as they enjoy watching her.”

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