Murphy eats frozen-thawed mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, chicken, beef, oxtail, herring, tilapia and more. He swallows most of his food whole or uses his teeth to saw off pieces of larger food. Like many reptiles, a Komodo dragon’s teeth are not built for chewing. “Their teeth are curved back,” explains Neff, “and the back curve is serrated, designed to tear or rip off pieces of meat from larger carcasses.” Onyx eats small items like mice, chicks, hard-boiled eggs and small chunks of meat right now, but keepers will introduce large food items as he grows.
Food is also useful for training. Keepers can’t pick up a huge and potentially dangerous lizard like Murphy, so they train him to participate in his care. One of their main tools is a large crate that stays in Murphy’s habitat, where it has become a familiar object. They can place the crate on a scale and ask Murphy to climb in to be weighed or use the crate to transport him to the veterinary hospital. Holes in the crate allow keepers to give Murphy bits of food as a reward to reinforce his good behavior.
His training also includes getting used to different experiences, such as the touch of a keeper, the sensation of a needle, and the feel of being scrubbed or groomed with a brush. Male Komodo dragons typically live to be about 20 years old in human care. That means Murphy is elderly in Komodo dragon years and requires some special care for conditions that are a natural part of aging, like arthritis in his legs. Thanks to his many years of training, keepers and veterinarians can work together to give him laser therapy treatments for his arthritis twice a week.
The dedication to training Murphy has prepared keepers to work with Onyx, too. They know which behaviors to focus on, what to expect and what to avoid. “One thing that we do before we go into Murphy’s habitat is read his body language,” says Neff. If Murphy seems active, excited or begins drooling (a sign he is expecting food), keepers know that it may not be the best time to enter his space. With time, they will be able to make the same judgments about Onyx.