Dragons at the Zoo

Just a few weeks ago I posted a photo of Douglas Burden, nature filmmaker and museum display innovator. Perhaps the single event that launched Burden to fame was a trip he took to Java where he successfully captured two live Komodo dragons and brought them back to the Bronx Zoo in 1927.

Then, over the weekend, a headline catches my eye: “Dragons Return to the Bronx Zoo” (NYTimes link; might need subscription). It appears as if they have some new specimens—siblings, in fact. Conveniently, the article forgets to mention that Burden’s original captors didn’t fare so well. According to Gregg Mitman:

The captured dragons were donated to the Bronx zoo, where attendance was said to have increased by thirty thousand people a day…Unfortunately, the dragons did not live long at the zoo, and the “lethargic, deflated captive” failed to give “any impression of his aggressive, alert appearance in his wild home.”1

But in death, the dragons were able to appear more “lifelike” through the processes of taxidermy and film. Burden donated the animals to the American Museum of Natural History, where they created a taxidermic “habitat group,” and played some of Burden’s films beside the display. It was likely the first time that films accompanied a natural history museum display—though the films were silent.

  1. Gregg Mitman, “Cinematic Nature: Hollywood Technology, Popular Culture, and the American Museum of Natural History,” Isis 84.4 (1993): 643-644.



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