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Leapin' Lizards

updated 08/15/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/15/1994 01:00AM

IT IS LUNCHTIME AT THE CINCINNATI Zoo. Keeper Johnny Arnett, bucket of raw meat in hand, whistles for his charge. Naga, the Komodo dragon, glides toward him, showing the speed that makes him a fearsome predator in the wild. "Magnificent, isn't he," says Arnett. "You whistle for your dog and you feed him. This is the same thing, only neater."

Well, not the same thing exactly. For one thing, no dog is 8½ long and 170 lbs. What makes Naga unique, though, is his progeny. He is the father of some of the cutest little lizards ever to show their faces in Cincinnati.

"When you become well versed about reptiles," says Arnett, 49, a reptile supervisor, "you know that the premier reptile is the Komodo dragon—the largest living lizard in the world."

And there aren't many of them. The Komodo's natural habitat is confined to a few islands in Indonesia, and scientists estimate that only about 3,000 to 5,000 of them exist in the wild. (One problem: 40 percent of the Komodo's diet is other Komodos—although they have been known to attack humans.) In the Cincinnati Zoo, however, the dragons are nourishing, thanks largely to the tender loving care of Arnett, godfather to more baby Komodos than anyone in the world. Naga, 11, who came to the U.S. in 1990 as a gift from Indonesia to President George Bush, sired 26 babies last year.

Arnett's fondness for reptiles goes back nearly 30 years. He was an aimless 19-year-old when the federal Youth Corps program found him work in the zoo's nursery. He soon was asked to transfer to reptiles. "I was scared to death," he says, "but it paid more."

That was the start of a career in herpetology, with much of Arnett's expertise coming from hands-on contact with reptiles, supplemented by voluminous reading. The 26 little dragons, the products of two clutches, are the measure of his success. "I was so happy when they hatched," he says. "I drank a few beers." Now, of course, Arnett has to watch as the baby lizards are farmed out to zoos across the country. "It's like giving away your children," he says.

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