Komodo dragons have quite a reputation to live up to: ferocious carnivores, fiercest lizards known, man-eaters.
This is unjust. Komodos are indeed the world's largest lizards, sometimes 10 feet long and weighing more than 200 pounds. They have scaly hides, sharp claws and long, forked, yellow tongues that dart from cavernous mouths filled with ripsaw teeth.And carnivores they are, feeding not only on carrion but on living goats, deer and wild pigs on their native Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia.
But Dale Marcellini, curator of the National Zoo here, knows of only three instances of human deaths associated with Komodos.
In one, a dragon smelled the food of picnicking Indonesian villagers, charged them and bit a child on the leg. The child bled to death.
A second fatality occurred when an island resident cornered a Komodo that turned on him and bit him. The man died of an infection a few days later. The dragons' mouths are awash with virulent bacteria.
Only in the third case is there suspicion that a dragon ate its victim. As two young tourists wandered into the brush, a Komodo reportedly leaped out of hiding, grabbed one and disemboweled him.
But people shouldn't feel threatened by Komodos, Marcellini says, because they are among the calmest of lizards and even share some traits with family dogs.
"They basically leave you alone," he told National Geographic. "Even on the island, they act like you're not part of their normal diet." Humans are usually so noisy and obvious they have little to fear from Komodos which are "sit-and-wait predators," he adds.
"But I suppose if you were going down a trail and one of them mistook you for a small pig or something, it might unwittingly leap out and grab you."
Since May, the National Zoo has been the home of the only two Komodo dragons in North America. The young pair, a 6 1/2-foot male, Friendty, and a 4 1/2-foot female, Sa-bat, are gifts from the Indonesian president. Their menu: dead rats and chicks.
"They may act sort of doglike in terms of hanging around you and wondering whether you're going to feed them or not," Marcellini says. They are becoming tame in captivity, he says, adding, "I believe you could whistle and teach them to come."
Before the Komodos arrived, Mar-cellini checked out the lizards' habitat on the inaccessible, waterless and inhospitable island of Komodo, one of only four islands on which the endangered creatures live. He estimates their total number at about 5,000.
They've been around for some 60 million years, considerably less time than iguanas, living on islands "where nobody's bothered them for eons, so they don't run away from humans," says Marcellini. "Even in the wilds, they just sort of hang around."
In captivity, Komodos are always a star attraction because of their rarity and legendary reputation. The National Zoo acquisition fills a void left when North America's last Komodo dragon, an aging female, died at the San Diego Zoo in 1987. The last one at the National Zoo died in 1975.
No Komodo has ever been born in this country, but Friendty and Sabat may make history. They've been seen mating, and National Zoo officials hope the first made-in-America Komodos will emerge from Sabat's eggs.