Overhead at the National Zoo

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 1996:

WASHINGTON D.C.––Closed to
the public repeatedly during the
November/December federal budget impasse,
the National Zoo made headlines earlier for
introducing a unique 400-foot Orangutan
Transit Line enabling the six resident orangs
to swing from cables 35 to 45 feet above visitors
as they cross at will from the current ape
house to a schoolroom in the original monkey
house, built in 1907. Unauthorized descents
from support towers are inhibited by a 9,000-
volt electric skirting around the tower platforms.
The orangs were introduced to the
transit line in pairs, to see what one could
learn from watching another. In the schoolroom,
the orangs are learning to use a computer
with a special symbol keyboard, which
may eventually enable them to talk to visitors.

The complete project, funded as a study of
intelligence, is costing $250,000.
Acclaim for the orang project helped
overcome criticism of reptile curator Dale
Marcellini’s decision to retire a Komodo dragon
named Sobot from breeding, and to donate
her last 10 fertile eggs to an attempt by
University of Florida at Gainesville researcher
Tim Gates to find a method to determine the
sex of unhatched Komodos. As in other reptiles,
sex differentiation in Komodos is determined
by temperature. “By knowing the sex
of the animals as hatchlings,” Marcellini said,
“we can be much more efficient in our captive
breeding,” achieving greater reproductive
success and genetic diversity without taking
more Komodos from the wild. The wild population
is estimated at 5,000 to 7,000.
Sobot, with 57 offspring, is the
only Komodo dragon ever to produce viable
eggs outside Indonesia. She is now believed
to be over-represented in the captive gene
pool––and Marcellini also believes the captive
population may be too big. “There are not
that many facilities that can display these animals
humanely,” he added.
Objected Wayne Hill, director of
the National Reptile Breeder’s Expo and president
of the Central Florida Herpetological
Society, “If zoos choose not to breed rare animals
and sell the offspring, they are doing a
disservice to their supporters and to the taxpayers.
The day every American kid can see a
Komodo dragon in the flesh, without a very
long journey, then we can talk about a glut of

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