Michael Adams, reptile conservator at the National Zoo, bonds with a dragon.
Grant Kother, one of the dragon keepers at the London Zoo, with Raja the male Komodo Dragon.
The training targets are wooden poles with plastic balls on the end and a clicker is attached to the pole. The plastic balls are different colours so that each dragon can recognise its individual target more easily.
Rinca, the female dragon, in the night room with her transport box.
How to train a dragon
Last year I had the opportunity to work at the ZSL London Zoo in England. The main purpose of my four-day visit was to learn what training techniques the staff members at London Zoo use to train their two Komodo Dragons.
Traditionally reptiles weren't generally considered very 'trainable' animals. However a number of reptiles, especially many of the lizards as well as the crocodilians show quite a high level of intelligence. This is very true of the Komodo Dragons who can most definitely be trained effectively and also become very tame and used to interacting with people.
Enter Rinca and Raja
The two Komodos at London Zoo are named Rinca and Raja. Raja, the male, is about 13 years old. He is over 2,5m in length and weighs roughly 38kg. He is definitely the tamer of the two dragons and will happily let anyone enter his enclosure and interact with him. Rinca, the female, was originally housed at the National Zoo, but has been at London Zoo since 2008. She is around 9 or 10 years old and weighs approximately 35kg.
The two dragons have training on most days, unless they have had a large meal, in which case they might skip a few days' training.
Both dragons are target trained. Their targets are wooden poles with plastic balls on the end. A clicker is attached to the pole. The plastic balls are different colours so that each dragon can recognise its individual target more easily.
Raja has a short pole because he is very tame. Rinca has a much longer pole and is not as tame as Raja. The keepers have been doing a lot of work with Rinca trying to get her more familiar being around people. It is now possible for the keepers to enter her enclosure with her, although they still have to be alert when working very close to her as she can be a bit overly inquisitive at times.
Because Raja's training and exposure to people was started at a younger age, he is much more accepting of people. He allows his keepers to enter his enclosure every morning and do a mock 'vet examination' of him, where they check each of his legs, his back, stomach and his tail. The keepers can physically lift his tail off the ground without a reaction from the animal. They are hoping that they can train him to do voluntary blood draws in future.
Why train a dragon?
All of these training techniques are carried out with a particular purpose in mind. Being able to physically examine the animal so closely on a daily basis gives the keepers a chance to check for any problems that the animals might be having without having to catch and restrain them, which is obviously more stressful. It also allows for routine procedures to be carried out, such as the weighing of the animals or even doing an ultrasound without the need for any sedation.
In terms of the actual training, the dragons are each fed a couple of mice or young rats on most days. The keepers lure the dragons into their night rooms by calling out their names, which they respond to.
Some of the training takes place in the night rooms but most of it is actually done in the enclosure with the animal. The keeper will collect some food and the target, and then enter the enclosure. They call the animal to the target. When the dragon touches the target with its mouth, the keeper clicks the clicker and gives the dragon a mouse as a reward. This is repeated a few times before the target is put away.
What is interesting about these two trained dragons is that as soon as the target is put away they do not show a continued interest in food or feeding like most reptiles would. After most training sessions the keeper would go back into the enclosure and pat or hug the dragon who showed no feeding response at all.
Raja was also trained to follow the target around the enclosure and climb up a large tree stump in his enclosure and then across to another one. This is not only a form of training, but exercise and enrichment for the animal as well. It is also very exciting for the public to see.
Transporting a dragon
The transport boxes for the two Komodos were left in their night rooms at all times. This is so the animals can get used to having the boxes around and do not mind climbing on them or walking through them. Should the need arise for one of the dragons to be treated by a vet, it can be easily lured into the box which is sealed off at the front and a wooden cut out is placed over the tail so secure the animal.
Raja and Rinca receive quite an array of different foods. Komodo Dragons would eat almost anything in the wild — from insects to rats, mice and even deer and buffalo. Often Komodos scavenge food that has been killed by other dragons. To recreate the varied diet they would get in the wild, the keepers at London Zoo feed their dragons mice, rats, trout, chicken, rabbits, goats and even horses.
On a few occasions each dragon was given half a cow carcass which was left in their enclosures for six days, simulating what would happen in the wild. The dragons would spend a good few hours gorging themselves the first day, but would return every day for the rest of the week to eat a few more kilograms of meat. They have no problem eating rotting meat. The dragons are fed a certain weight of food each week depending on the age and weight of the individual animal.
The NZG's own dragons
The NZG's two Komodos, Indie and Herman, are five years old and almost two metres in length. Since my trip to London we have been very successful in training them. They are both target trained already and have become habituated enough to enable us to enter their enclosures and interact with them. We have also been able to weigh them successfully on a number of occasions, which we had not been able to do in the past. We currently conduct training with them about three times a week.
Four weeks ago Indie and Herman featured on ETV News. The presenters were in the enclosures with the dragons, which proved that our training programme is bearing fruit.
I would like to say a big thank you to Chris de Beer, Curator of the National Zoo's Reptile Park, for arranging my visit to London Zoo. I really appreciate the opportunity to learn from our colleagues in the UK and it was an experience I will never forget.
Michael Adams, Reptile Conservator, NZG
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