The new Dinosaurs! exhibit at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo features 18 life-size, animatronic prehistoric creatures, doing pretty much all the things real dinosaurs used to do. "There's a lot of head-moving and tail-swaying," says Dick Chodera, the zoo's superintendent of facility operations. "We set them up so they're eating trees and stuff."
And how are the zoo's regular inhabitants adapting to the dimetrodons, stegosauruses, and tyrannosauruses that now stalk the area around Waterfowl Lake? "Animals adjust fairly easily," Chodera says. "And it's in a kind of unused section of the zoo. We're watching the animals' reactions to this, just in case." As the exhibit was being set up last week, a pair of the zoo's lions mauled another lion. Not that we're starting rumors.
Among the attractions at Dinosaurs! (which opens May 15) are baby dinos and a nest filled with eggs and newborns. ("There's a pregnant dinosaur," jokes the zoo's Sue Allen. "We're hoping for a hatchling.") There's also a fossil-digging site for kids, a view of the innards of one of the animatronic beasts, and a Dinosaur Simulator. "It's like one of those things they have at the mall," explains the zoo's Jim English. "You're strapped into a seat, and there's a movie with surround sound." The mobile ride-simulation theater is made up of nine motion bases, which move the viewer in sync with the on-screen action. The result, English says, feels like a close and personal encounter with dinosaurs.
But the show's centerpiece is the robotic creatures developed by Dino-MAE Creations, a California operation that rents its handiwork to parks around the country. Considering that dinosaurs like the apatosaurus (once known as the brontosaurus) were longer than two school buses, their re-created carcasses aren't exactly carted cross-country on pickup trucks. "These things were shipped to us [assembled] on metal bases in a semitrailer," Chodera says. "The T. rex was bent down in a pose, so he's only about seven and a half feet high, but still the full 40 feet long [during shipping]. It took two tow motors and a crane to put him in place."
The zoo crew hopes visitors walk away with a greater understanding of dinosaur life. Just as cages throughout the zoo are fronted by info-packed plaques, each animatronic creature is accompanied by a bio and prehistory lesson. "There's still an interest in them," Allen says. "This is a fun and informative [way] to get people in the gate.
"The extinction message is the message we want people to take away from this. We don't want today's animals to become tomorrow's dinosaurs."