ALLENWOOD - It's taken a decade for Clyde Peeling to bring Komodo dragons to the northern Union County reptiland.

The animals, however, which were in their exhibit for the first time publicly Friday, are something that Chad Peeling, the zoo's operations manager, has been dreaming of working with for much longer. Now that's it's a reality, the visitors of the park can experience the island giants, too.

"It offers our guests a chance to see one extreme of reptiles - a top predator that is more like a mammal in many ways," he said Thursday night during a special VIP tour of the new exhibit.

As the world's largest lizard, Komodo dragons are an endangered species found only on four small islands in the Indonesian Archipelago where they are the top predator in the food chain.

Unlike smaller lizards like iguanas, the dragons are active, complex and comparable to big predator cats like lions in terms of intelligence and personality.

In captivity, they are known to play, learn their own names and recognize individual keepers. In the wild, they memorize large areas of terrain, birthing schedules of their prey and follow game trails.

"They're special," he noted.

Rare exhibit

It's rare for zoos to even have these animals since there's been a crisis of them not breeding in captivity due to dietary problems and exercise that experts are just now understanding.

Two years ago, management from Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens contacted the Peelings to inform them that their dragons hatched one male and one female, and asked if the Pennsylvania zoo would be interested in purchasing them.

It took two years to make the necessary arrangements, Peeling said.

The new 3,000-square-foot building, which is sponsored by the Susquehanna River Valley Visitors Bureau, is host to a 1,300-square-foot room complete with Indonesian plants, mud banks and a running water source and waterfall. The temperature in the building is kept at 95 degrees while there are basking areas for the dragons that are as warm as 120 degrees.

The zoo keepers will make sure the enclosure is changing regularly by adding new scents and hidden treats in order to keep the animals active and interested, Peeling said.

There are also information signs describing the dragons, footage playing of the animals in the wild and replicated skin for people to touch.

The dragons, which are both approximately 5 feet in length now, will potentially get much bigger. The male animal may grow up to 9 feet long and weigh 120 pounds without food. The female animal may grow up to 7 feet long and weigh 90 pounds without food.

Komodo dragons are "extremely bold predators" that are capable of taking down water buffalo or deer, and may even go after people, Peeling said.

"They are the T. rex of the living reptiles," he said.

Dinosaurs

Speaking of T. rex, the popular "Dinosaurs Come to Life" exhibit is now in its third year at the zoo, and features new dinosaurs.

The exhibit features four animatronic dinosaurs owned by the zoo - a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex, a Parasaurolophus, a juvenile stegosaurus and a pair of Coelophysis.

Seven others are being rented from Billings Production, based in McKinney, Texas, including the returning adult Tyrannosaurus rex, Baryonyx, Dilophosaurus and Brachiosaurus and the new Styracosaurus, its hatchlings and Citipati.

Billings is promoted as North America's leading provider of large, life-size animatronic dinosaurs for traveling and permanent exhibits in zoos, museums and theme parks.

Reaction

Jody Schefsky, of Williamsport, described the dragons and the new building as "beautiful."

"I would love to have them as pets," she said.

Her daughter, 11-year-old Katie Schefsky, and daughter's friend, 10-year-old Hannah Myers, both called the dragons "amazing."

"It's the way they look and eat their prey," Katie said.

The dragon building will eventually have a 500-square-foot exhibit for the zoo's two giant tortoises. That part of the building and an outside area for the dragons are currently still under construction.

Reptiland is open year-round except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day. From Memorial Day through Labor Day, it is open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. In April, May, September and October, it is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. during the week and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the weekends. From November through March, it is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

General admission is $16 for adults (age 12 and up), $14 for children (ages three to 11) and free for infants (ages two and under).

Clyde Peeling's Reptiland is located on Route 15 in Allenwood, approximately 10 miles north of Lewisburg.