Zoo Gets a T. Rex
Dino Teaches Kids Behind-the-Scenes Animal Care
He blinks, he runs, he roars, he poops. He’s Duncan the dinosaur, a Tyrannosaurus rex headlining the Santa Barbara Zoo’s new educational show, “How to Train Your Dinosaur.” Premiering Thursday, May 3, the 15-minute free skit allows kiddies to see how zoo staff works with animals outside public view, which, as marketing director Dean Noble put it, is “consistently the most interesting part of the job.”
Duncan is taught how to station, meaning go where the keeper wants him to go. Gorillas, for instance, station to get their teeth brushed, elephants to receive pedicures, and parrots to have their feathers trimmed. Duncan is also offered enrichment activities, tasks, and toys given to actual animals to keep them fit and mentally nimble.
Built by creature creators at the L.A.-based Chiodo Brothers production studio, Duncan stands seven feet tall and 15 feet long, complete with sharp teeth and lifelike scaly skin—made from painted silicone and spandex—stretched over an aluminum frame. Its operators climb inside, strap themselves into a backpack-like shoulder harness, and operate Duncan’s tail, head, and mouth with levers. They see the outside world on a video monitor attached to a pinhole camera hidden on the dino’s nose and growl through an amplified voice modulator. The zoo held auditions for the role, said Noble, and settled on a UCSB theater student and high school athlete.
To get the anatomy and dimensions just right, explained Ed Chiodo, designers studied the only adolescent T. rex skeleton in the world. They settled on a color scheme based on a combination of the Baja Blue Rock Lizard’s “outfit” and the zoo’s logo. And to not scare the living daylights out of the kids who watch him, Duncan was built and his show staged with careful consideration. He’s got a permanent hint of a smile, and he’ll slowly walk out on stage so the young audience can gradually get used to him, said Noble.
And why a dinosaur? Kids can’t help but be enchanted by them. “You know what they say,” said Noble, “Wisdom begins with wonder.”
Show times are 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekends through June 15. The schedule expands to Wednesdays-Sundays, same times, after that date. Visit sbzoo.org for more details.