It's time to see Miami dragons Metrozoo: Four years after hurricane devastation, the area has been rebuilt. Two big, powerful Indonesian lizards have joined the animal collection.

July 07, 1996|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

MIAMI -- Lions and tigers and bears, oh, my! Lions and tigers and -- Komodo dragons, oh, what?

Komodo dragons. There they are, the largest, most powerful lizards on earth, frolicking, if you can believe it, right there in the Falcon Batchelor Komodo Dragon Encounter in the Miami Metrozoo.

Travelers to this Florida city usually think sun and fun on the beach. But sometimes the beach gets too hot, the body too red and the routine too dull.

When that happens, it's time to head for Miami's completely reconstructed zoo, for a peek at its newest residents -- Komodo dragons Jack and Lubier, who were born in the wild in Indonesia.

Four years ago, when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida, this zoo was leveled. Since then, says Ron Magill, the zoo communications director, the Metrozoo has been made over.

"People thought it would be forever before we were back up to acceptable levels, because we had so much devastation," says Magill. "But we're not only back up to a comparable level, we're better than we were before."

The zoo offers a beautiful setting, with palm trees and a shimmering lake full of gorgeous orange flamingos. You must weave your way through the park until you come to the Komodo dragons, the Indonesian treasures that arrived here in January, and their new, total immersion exhibit.

"We have one of only four adult pairs of these lizards in the United States," says Magill. "And their arrival marks one of the few times these lizards have come out of Indonesia. They're like a gift of state from the country and were accompanied by the consul of Indonesia. It's a very big thing because they're very selective over who will house their national treasures."

The Komodo dragon can reach nearly 10 feet in length and weigh close to 300 pounds. It is a primitive-looking reptile and is classified as an endangered species, as its total population is believed to be only about 6,000.

Jack, about 8 1/2 years old, is nearly 8 feet long, and Lubier, age 7, is approximately 6 1/2 feet long.

They seem very happy on this day, as they amble around their habitat, a dry, Indonesian-type stream bed.

To reach them, you walk through a mist-shrouded jungle that includes stands of bamboo that rustle as you pass, sounding like animals in the bush.

"It's a total experience type of exhibit, and it has been very popular," says Magill.

But it is not the only new, popular exhibit here. The Asian bull elephants are back, and the ever-popular koalas returned last November, a permanent gift from the San Diego Zoo, where they were born. Another new exhibit includes the African wart hogs, made popular by "The Lion King" movie.

Before the hurricane, this zoo was only interested in making its residents comfortable. With the rebuilding has come an awareness that the people who visit the zoo need some comforts, too.

"I don't want to sound opportunistic," says Magill. "But we knew there had been mistakes in the original building of this zoo, but they weren't drastic enough to tear everything down and do it all over again. But then the hurricane came and did that for us."

With a clean slate, designers started over and considered the visitors who come to enjoy the animals. There are more than 7,000 new trees strategically planted, an elevated, air-conditioned transportation system, tram tours, benches in front of every exhibit, and rest areas throughout the zoo with cold-water fountains, ceiling fans and built-in seating.

A new restaurant overlooking the zoo's lake is to be completed later this summer.

"Things have really fallen our way lately," says Magill. "The last rainy season was a godsend, because of all the new trees and landscaping. Those trees provide very, very important shade. In the summertime, it's very warm. The trees are vital. It makes it, with the trees and benches and the rest areas, a pleasant experience."

The park comprises 740 acres, but only 290 to 300 are developed. So there's still space for improvement.

One of those future developments will be rebuilding the aviary, which housed 300 birds in a reproduced Southeast Asia rain forest before the storm. "People were literally able to step off a sidewalk in Miami and arrive in Southeast Asia," said Magill. "It did what all zoos strive to do, really transport the visitor to all parts of the world. And it's the only thing that isn't rebuilt. It was about an acre and a half in size and 60 feet tall, and it was just hammered. Totally leveled."

The zoo recovered 200 of its birds after the storm and sent them to other zoos around the country for safekeeping until a new aviary is built here.

Currently, the zoo is in negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The government agency wants to give enough money to rebuild the aviary exactly as it was, while zoo officials are saying that rebuilding it as it was would be making the same mistake twice.

"So that's caught up in red tape," Magill says, "but on the other side of the coin "

On the other side of the coin is a much-improved zoo, just waiting to be discovered.

If you go

The Miami Metrozoo is located at 12400 S.W. 152nd St. It is 20 minutes from Miami International Airport and 45 minutes from Fort Lauderdale. The best way to get to the zoo is by car or taxi. Take the Florida Turnpike south to Southwest 152nd Street. Exit and then follow the signs. The zoo will be less than a mile on your left. Admission: Adults $8, children 3 to 12 $4. Children under 3 are free. For more information on the zoo, call (305) 251-0404.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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