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Monday, March 2, 2015

Jurassic Zoo

The Spinosaurus wasn’t just big… it was breathtakingly huge.  For several minutes, I walked back and forth, pacing off from the tip of its crocodilian snout to the end of its tapering tail, casting an impressed eye at its six-foot sail all the while.  Fifty feet long, according to my guesses – later confirmed by the educational plaques – which would have made it the longest- not the biggest, but the longest – of the predatory dinosaurs.  After a moment longer, I walked on towards the next museum exhibit, before stopping to cast one look back at it.

Photo from National Geographic Museum, Washington, DC

It would make a heck of a zoo exhibit, I thought… and then idly began to wonder what the housing would have to be like - the temperature parameters, the holding building, the waste removal.  It would certainly need a pool, one bigger every other one in our zoo put together.  As for feeding it... Spinosaurus was a piscivore (fish-eater), and I've seen what the food bill for a small flock of penguins can run up to.  This bad boy would be a star attraction for sure, but the grocery tab alone would probably bankrupt our zoo. 

This summer, one of the most talked-about movies is doubtlessly going to be Jurassic World, the long-awaited next episode in the Jurassic Park series.  The synopsis, in a nutshell, is that after some earlier… unpleasantness (recounted in Jurassic Parks 1-3), John Hammond’s dream has come true, and his prehistoric zoo is open to the world.  Most moviegoers are excited to see screen favorites such as Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor doing what they do best – tearing up humans and scaring the hell out of audiences.  I’m down for that, too, but I’m mostly planning on having my own little nerd-fest as well.

“What would it be like to be a dinosaur keeper?”

Whenever a book is adapted into a movie (and especially when the movie becomes hugely popular), there are always “those people” who feel the need to go on about how the book was better than a movie.  Those people are, of course, pretty annoying, but I will admit, I liked the novel Jurassic Park more than the movie in one respect – it was full on information about how the keepers at the park managed their charges, from veterinary care to arranging social groupings.  In fact, if someone had just created, as an elaborate piece of fan-fiction, a husbandry manual for Jurassic Park, I’d be first to buy it.

Dinosaurs, alas, are no longer with us, of course – at least in the form that we recognize (birds and crocodilians are their modern decedents).  This, perhaps more than anything else about them – their size, their strangeness – makes them fascinating to us – we know so little about them, only what guesses we can make based on the scant clues gleaned from bone and rock.  Several zoos have tried to capitalize on their popularity by adding seasonal dinosaur exhibits, complete with life-sized models or animatronics.  I’ve worked at one of those facilities; they’ve overall been very popular, but it’s downright depressing how many visitors I encountered who were outraged that the dinosaurs on display weren’t real, live ones.  

I guess some folks thought Jurassic Park was a documentary…

There’s a tremendous role for dinosaurs to play in zoo collections, if used well.  For one thing, they provide a great lesson on how ecosystems change.  A great example of this is the “Restless Planet” exhibit at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.  Most of the aquarium is devoted to native species, except for this one gallery, which explores how Virginia – the landscape, the climate, the plants, and the animals – have changed over millions of years.  For those institutions that are willing to speak about evolution (as I feel all should be), they provide a wonderful lesson; imagine the surprise of visitors learning that Velociraptors are more closely related to sparrows than lizards!  And, of course, dinosaurs have lessons to teach us about extinction.  We’re quick to mock them as outdated animals that were incapable of surviving, but humans are going to have to stick around for a heck of a lot longer before we can match how long dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Zoo, short for zoological park, is meant to be a park devoted to the study and conservation of animals.  Too often, however, we only focus on a tiny subset of animals to highlight (*cough* large mammals *cough*).  Invertebrates, for instance, make up the vast majority of animal life – we should talk more about them.  Another truth, though, is that the vast majority of animal species which have ever existed are now extinct.  Obviously, by virtue of being extinct, those animals aren’t going to be represented by live specimens in our collections, but ignoring them completely does present visitors with a pretty skewed picture of animal life.

Decades ago, German zookeepers attempted to resurrect the aurochs, an extinct wild-ox native to the forests of Europe with dubious results.  Today, we have the power of genetics, and occasionally hear about scientists someday having the power to clone extinct species, such as the wooly mammoth.  Some people ask whether we really can do this.  Others ask if we really should.

Unless some real-life John Hammond is biding his time, sitting on a scientific coup of all time before he announces his creations, I doubt we’ll all be seeing dinosaurs in the flesh any time soon.  That just means we need to pay a little more attention to their descendants.

My girlfriend and I recently visited another zoo when we stopped in front of the kori bustards.  The male strode boldly to the front of the exhibit.  My girlfriend (not a bird person) eyed him warily – his reptilian eyes, his scaly legs, his clawed toes.

“He’s like a dinosaur,” was her first impression of him.

Yes, I thought.  In a way, that’s exactly what he is.

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