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With a dragon set to star, Buffalo Zoo's refreshed reptile house is ready to debut

The Komodo dragon moved cautiously around his new enclosure at the Buffalo Zoo on Tuesday, a forked tongue occasionally slithering in and out.

The 4-year-old prehistoric-looking monitor lizard will make his public debut Friday with the re-opening of the former Reptile House. The building has been renamed the Donna M. Fernandes Amphibian and Reptile Center.

The 5-foot-long, 50-pound creature — with its armored scales, long tail and venomous bite — is expected to be a popular attraction. He's hardly alone: The 25 refreshed and new display cases feature a variety of tortoises, snakes, frogs, turtles and lizards, including some with several species inhabiting the same space, and familiar residents such as a gila monster and king cobra.

"We have gone from what was state-of-the-art in 1942 to what is state-of-the-art now," said Norah Fletchall, the zoo's president and chief executive officer.

The displays feature fabricated reproductions of nature using castings, artistically sculpted elements and live plant material. Some smaller spaces have been combined into one.

There is also an 18-foot mural by artist James Pate.

A new mural in the renovated reptile and amphibian house. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

Fletchall said a renovation of the Works Progress Administration building, which opened in 1942, was long overdue. It was designed by zoologist Marlin Perkins, a curator at the zoo from 1938 to 1944 who went on to host "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom."

"The building was in very bad shape, and the exhibits were in need of an update," Fletchall said. "I think the biggest change are things you are not likely to see."

That includes a new water purification system, heating and ventilation systems, plumbing, roof, skylights and other environmental needs specific to reptiles and amphibians. Lead paint was removed.

"The water systems were so obsolete and damaged that we were unable to filter the impurities out of the water," Fletchall said.

Now, the water goes through a reverse-osmosis process and travels through special tubes for added protection.

"We need to be able to provide for the animals' health, whether it's a little tiny frog or a rhino," Fletchall said. "That's our primary purpose."

Work stations have red emergency buttons to press if a keeper is bitten by a venomous reptile or amphibian. A call goes to the switchboard, which automatically dials 911. Anti-venoms suitable for different toxins are on-site, too.

The zoo is also involved in conservation efforts to help preserve the Panamanian Golden Frog, extinct in the wild, and the endangered Puerto Rican crested toad. The programs help maintain their zoo populations while working in the wild to restore their habitat.

Reptile keeper Illa Caira tends to the alligator lizard exhibit May 21. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

The renovation project, which began about a year ago, was initiated by Donna Fernandes, Fletchall's predecessor. She led the zoo from 2000 to 2017, completing 11 major projects at a cost of $52 million.

"I think it's a wonderful legacy to the decades of work and leadership she provided to the zoo," Fletchall said.

"It's in honor of her lifelong commitment to helping people understand and appreciate the reptiles and amphibians, and all those things that are underappreciated in our world," she added.

Among the donors were the City of Buffalo, which provided $267,000 for a new roof, skylights and upgrades to life-support systems; the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, which gave $500,000; the state Dormitory Authority, which provided $450,000; and state grants of $300,000 from Assemblyman Sean Ryan and $150,000 from State Sen. Chris Jacobs.

The zoo had planned to next develop a $6 million Himalayan Highlands exhibit, but Fletchall said the priority now is to complete a strategic plan that will spell out decisions over the next five to 10 years.

She didn't rule anything out, but she said addressing the zoo's infrastructure needs to meet modern zoological standards would be a priority.

The Buffalo Zoo is putting on the finishing touches as they get ready to open the Donna M. Fernandes Amphibian and Reptile Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

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