Notes From the Zookeeper: Saying Goodbye

I love to share the good things. There is so much about my job that is good, hopeful, wonderful. I hatch baby tortoises fairly regularly now, I have the privilege of taking care of an Aldabra Giant Tortoise that I met for the first time when I was on a class field trip in the first grade, and my job is never, ever boring. There is so much to learn, so much to question, so much to DO! Happy is when a kid overcomes their fear and pets Big Al for the first time. Happy is when a new baby tortoise hatches and thrives. Happy is changing a guest’s mind about the value of snakes in their yard. But with light comes dark, with sweet comes bitter.

A few weeks ago, we lost Khaleesi, our beautiful female Komodo Dragon. She would have been nine in August. Captive dragons don’t live as long as their wild counterparts, a phenomenon we have begun to understand and correct, but a captive life expectancy is around 25 years. At 9 years old, she was still a young dragon. We are still reeling from her loss.

One Saturday she looked like she was favoring one hind leg. A few days later, she was gone. Necropsy (an autopsy for animals) revealed that she was carrying eggs, several of which had begun to decay. Had the eggs been fertile, she would likely have laid them days, even weeks, prior. Infertile eggs don’t pass through the reproductive tract as easily. Retained eggs lead to infection, and that is what got our girl.

Dog and cat owners can tell you how strong the human-animal bond can be and how much it hurts when our pets die. We loved our dragon the same way other folks love their cats and dogs. She was one of a kind, and we miss her.

She arrived at Zoo Knoxville eight years ago, as a yearling. Komodo Dragons have an excellent sense of smell, so one way to get to know her keepers was to have each of them put a dirty work-out shirt in her exhibit with her a few times per week. Dragons are intelligent, as well, and they recognize individuals by sight and by smell. Very quickly, she had picked her favorite person. Each time the shirts were hung in her exhibit, she would yank his down and sleep on it. Years later, when he had been promoted out of the department, he could still do things with her that none of the rest of us had the nerve to. He could hold her to have her claws trimmed when she was nearly grown.

People were stunned that we would go into her exhibit with her, but she was a pleasure to work with. We always took precautions. She was a wild animal, after all. But we knew her – knew how to read her behavior. We used a Komodo stick, basically a long, thick stick with a fork at one end, useful for pinning a tail, pushing a head away, or cupping the back of a chunky thigh to encourage her to move forward when she was dug in and refusing to go inside. Sometimes she surprised us. Last summer, she learned to pin the stick with her thigh so she could try to whack it out of our hand with her tail.

Khaleesi was very intelligent. Not only did she recognize individual keepers, she responded to each of our expectations differently. Stephen, her primary keeper, didn’t hesitate to open the door to feed her when she was right in front of it. He could get by with that. He had known her longer and had worked with her more. It took her only a couple of tries to learn that if I was feeding her, she needed to go up on a platform under the lights. Considering she only ate once a week, it was a pretty impressive feat on her part.

Intelligence also means curiosity. Any time we brought something into the exhibit that she hadn’t seen before, she would run over as quickly as she could, tongue-flicking to beat the band. I once brought in a temperature gun to make sure the exhibit was warm enough, and tried to climb my leg like a temp gun was exactly what she wanted for her birthday. How could you not love an animal like that?

We’ve been asked quite a bit whether or not we’re getting another dragon. The short answer is that we don’t know. The longer answer is that there aren’t any available dragons right now, and we don’t know if that will change. We don’t even know right now if any zoos are incubating viable eggs. So we wait to see what will go in her exhibit.

We wait. And we miss her.