Sunday, March 18 , 2018, 3:33 pm | Fair 59º


Lifelike T. Rex Stars in Santa Barbara Zoo’s New Live Stage Show

'How to Train Your Dinosaur,' demonstrating special care received by the animals, opens Saturday

The Santa Barbara Zoo’s newest resident is a lifesize, adolescent Tyrannosaurus rex that runs, roars, snorts, blinks, growls — and even poops.

Fifteen feet from nose to tail and 7-feet tall, this amazingly lifelike dinosaur named “Duncan” was designed by Chiodo Bros., one of Hollywood’s top creature shops.

Duncan stars in the zoo’s new live stage show “How to Train Your Dinosaur,” opening Saturday. Show times are 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekends only through June 15. The schedule expands to Wednesdays through Sundays, same times, after that date. Shows are held at the outdoor Rolling Hills Theatre and are free with zoo admission. Audience seating is on a grassy hillside, and there is no reserved seating.

During the family friendly, 15-minute lively presentation, the human hosts introduce the zoo’s new resident — a newly hatched T. rex! Using Duncan, they attempt to demonstrate the special care received by the zoo’s animals — with hilarious results. Just as keepers have trained the zoo’s gorillas to allow their teeth to be brushed, Duncan is given a chance to improve his oral hygiene. But it’s going to take a lot of patience and positive reinforcement, just like with pets at home and the zoo’s animals, before he is trained. Audience volunteers are also “trained” in exchange for treats.

Improvisation by the human hosts, and by the performer inside Duncan, make for a lively, ever-changing performance for audiences of all ages.

Why a Dinosaur at the Zoo?

“Duncan is a perfect example of the evolution of an idea,” zoo CEO Rich Block said. “We wanted to give our guests a behind-the-scenes look at the ways we work with our animals, but in a fresh and focused way. Duncan adds a dimension of energy and focus that is tremendous fun.”

It can take weeks, sometimes months, of patient guidance by the keepers, using treats and other rewards, to train an individual animal to move to a particular spot, called “stationing,” for example. This training allows the animal to be examined and even weighed, or to receive medications.

“We can’t bring the gorillas out every day and show their teeth getting brushed,” Block said. “But we can show Duncan getting the same positive reinforcement we use with the gorillas and other animals here at the zoo. The fun part is, he learns anew every show, as does the audience.”

Examples of animals who “station” at the zoo include the African lions, who step on a scale to be weighed, giant anteaters hold still for ultrasound examinations, giraffes allow keepers to pick up their feet to file their hooves, parrots hold open their wings for their feathers to be trimmed, and the elephants put their feet into warm water tubs for a pedicure.

Or the goal can be to encourage the animals to interact with their environment. Keepers routinely spray scents in the exhibits of gorillas, lions and elephants, for example, for them to discover. Cardboard boxes, burlap and sturdy plastic balls are given to animals to interact with. A large umbrella structure was recently installed in the elephant yard to hoist hay up or other items so the elephants have to reach to them.

“This sort of enrichment keeps our animals alert, active and healthy,” Block said.

The Making of a Dinosaur

Duncan was constructed by hand by Chiodo Bros. A backpack holds the lightweight aluminum frame that forms Duncan’s skeleton. Foam was used to construct his muscles and tendons, which are covered by a “skin” of custom fabric that was dyed, then handsewn on and custom painted.

“Anytime we can make a dinosaur, we’re happy,” Edward Chiodo said. “We love dinosaurs, and learn something every time we make one. This time, we learned more about weight distribution through the way we had to counterbalance the tail to allow for the head movements.”

The operator wears the backpack and has full control of Duncan’s actions, including his head and jaw, and tail movements. Duncan’s eye blinks are run by a computer program, and he poops from a preloaded cylinder controlled by the operator. A video monitor allows the operator to see ahead via images from a pinhole video camera located in the tip of Duncan’s nose. The operator also wears a headset that allows him to make sounds through a voice synthesizer.

— Julia McHugh is a publicist.

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