Wednesday, March 17, 2010

An Old Friend Goes West

When the Northwest Florida Zoo closed last Fall for lack of public funding, it was announced that one of the first creatures to leave was Ivan, the rare komodo dragon. As we recall, local zoo officials wouldn't say where it went or whether he was sold or given away.

Turns out, Ivan up and moved to the Phoenix Zoo, where we just happened to stumble across it on our recent trip.

Phoenix is a great location for komodo dragons: hot, dry tropical weather, skilled zoo keepers, a local culture broadly committed to civic education and betterment; tourist promoters who know how to publicize a rare find like Ivan; and local governments and foundations willing to finance educational and tourist attractions for school children and the general public.

Not all communities are like that; those, for example, that don't have a komodo dragon anymore.

The day we were there, school buses from all over southern Arizona and thousands of local vehicles and rental cars filled three huge parking lots to overflowing, each one larger than your typical college football stadium parking lot.

In Phoenix, they're spending a million dollars just to build a decent habitat for Ivan and two of his close relatives. (The million came from a foundation.)

The Phoenix Zoo is not shy about promoting its komodo dragons, either. While the local press in Northwest Florida barely acknowledged Ivan's existence or his subsequent departure, in Phoenix everyone is excited over the coup they've scored.

Media coverage is daily and intense. He and his relatives are "our most popular exhibit, by far," one zoo official told us.

Ivan and the other two Phoenix komodo dragons are well-situated. They have indoor accommodations for the rare cool weather; and, when they're acting like randy teenagers and have to be separated, lots of space and two pools out of doors -- with interesting neighbors.

As for Ivan, he's still getting adjusted to his new surroundings. He was a bit surprised to see someone from the Florida panhandle, but he most graciously invited us to step inside his temporary abode for a chat. Not wishing to interfere with his adjustment to a new home, we felt we should politely decline.

We parted most cordially. "Be sure to tell all the lovely boys and girls in Gulf Breeze," he said as we backed away, "the next time they visit Phoenix, I'd love to have them over for dinner."

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