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A zookeeper fights to save the animal she loves, even as her own life crumbles around her...
Meg Yancy knows she may be overly attached to Jata, the Komodo dragon that has been in her care since it arrived at the zoo from Indonesia. Jata brings the exotic to Meg's Minnesotan life: an ancient, predatory history and stories of ...
A zookeeper fights to save the animal she loves, even as her own life crumbles around her...
Meg Yancy knows she may be overly attached to Jata, the Komodo dragon that has been in her care since it arrived at the zoo from Indonesia. Jata brings the exotic to Meg's Minnesotan life: an ancient, predatory history and stories of escaping to freedom. A species that became endangered soon after being discovered, Komodos have a legacy of independence, something that Meg understands all too well. Meg has always been better able to relate to reptiles than to people, from her estranged father to her live-in boyfriend to the veterinarian who is more concerned with his career than with the animals' lives.
Then one day, Meg makes an amazing discovery. Jata has produced viable eggs-without ever having had a mate. Faced with this rare phenomenon, Meg must now defend Jata's hatchlings from the scientific, religious, and media forces that converge on the zoo to claim the miracle as their own.
Finally forced to deal with the very people she has avoided for so long, Meg discovers that opening herself up comes with its own complications. And as she fights to save the animal she loves from the consequences of its own miracle, she must learn to accept that in nature, as in life, not everything can be controlled.
Mindy Mejia's gripping debut novel highlights the perils of captivity and the astonishing ways in which animals evolve.
Meg Yancy kept a picture to remind herself where she and Jata began. The picture wasn't of either one of them; it was of the history of the relationship between Komodo dragons and humans.
Only a hundred years ago, the first white men started sailing the Indian and Pacific Oceans to Komodo Island in search of the dragons. They called themselves adventurers, without any irony, and they were on a King Kong mission to capture the biggest lizards in the world. Zoos all over Europe and America had just heard of the Komodo dragon, and everyone wanted a piece of the action, all of them trying to outbid one another for the first exhibit in the Western hemisphere. In other words, it was the typical feeding frenzy Meg always read about whenever some new, crazy species splashed onto the pages of the trade journals.
What made this story different was that the Komodo kings— those much-hyped, little-understood predators—didn't go quietly into that dark cage. They beat the men who hunted them, and no one saw it coming.
When the men landed on the island, the dragons didn't attack them. Despite what recent headlines suggest, Komodos don't regularly eat people. Humans taste bad—ask any shark. The dragons didn't run or hide either; it wouldn't even occur to a ten-foot-long, three-hundred-pound dragon to hide from some smelly, chattering mammals.
The men baited them with bleeding goats, trapped them, made the local villagers bind their jaws and legs, and measured them to make sure they were the longest, most impressive specimens to send back to the Western zoos. They loaded the dragons in wooden cages onto their ships, then kicked back in their cabins, sipping whiskey, polishing their guns—totally oblivious to what happened next.
The dragons broke free.
They smashed their cages to boards and splinters, ran past the shocked crew up the stairs to the main deck, and jumped, leaping overboard with a splash that must have sounded like "No fucking thank you," and dove through the dark waters to swim home.
They couldn't have made it. The dragons had escaped in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. All of them died of hypothermia or sheer exhaustion, but Meg knew that wasn't the point. The point was that they died free. They died unbeaten.
Eventually the humans got smarter and found ways to contain the animals during the long trip and deliver them to all the zoos. Jata's ancestors were among the captured ones. Now, as a keeper, Meg tried to make the cage bearable for the ones who weren't lucky enough to escape and die free.
As she opened the outer door to the Komodo dragon exhibit at the Zoo of America and walked inside, Meg went straight to the picture she kept taped up on the wall. It was from around 1910, as near as she could figure, and it was a snapshot of one of the first Komodos in an American zoo. The dragon sat in a small, metal enclosure with no food, no water, and no chance for escape. After weeks at sea, that bare cage was his final destination. It was a hopeless picture, the kind that always made Meg mad, until she turned to the main exhibit door and saw what a hundred years could do.
Through the viewing window, Meg could glimpse a sliver of the ten-foot rock wall that circled the habitat. A large swimming pond took up the far side of the space, and various trees and shrubs dotted the sandy ground. Two large, flat boulders were powered with internal heaters to keep their surfaces toasty warm, perfect for after-noon basking. The area even boasted a cave for some privacy. At five hundred square feet, the exhibit was bigger than Meg's first college apartment. It was exactly the kind of environment that a Komodo dragon should live in, if it had to live in a zoo—except today Meg's job was to get that dragon out.
She unlocked and opened a window on the holding room's restraint box—which was basically a reinforced coffin with airholes—and dropped in the backside of a chicken, minus some feathers and guts. Re-locking the window, she walked to the other end of the box and lifted a steel lever attached to the wall. A low, creaking motion inside the wall signaled that the door had opened, connecting the exhibit to the restraint box. Curtain up. She paced back to the main exhibit door and lifted herself up to her toes to peer through the lead glass. The metal cooled a circle into her stomach through the uniform, and her breath fogged the window. One second, two. There was no reason to step inside to call her when the chicken would do all the work. Komodos could smell carrion two miles across the Indonesian savannah; a forty-foot distance would be like shoving a piping hot pizza in Jata's face.
The pool and basking rocks were empty, so Meg focused on the cave, which wasn't really a cave. The rock outcropping that supported the visitor's viewing platform hovered over the exhibit a couple feet above the dirt floor. It was a crevice, if anything, just a thin, black cavity tucked underneath the constant stream of visitors.
That's where Jata appeared.
At first she was just a bust, some kind of sculpture made out of copper running to green. Her square snout protruded out from the shadows, and she tasted the air with a flick of forked yellow, confirming what had woken her from her nap. Chicken. It flashed from her tongue to her eyes, which darted immediately to where the mini-door opened into the restraint box. Climbing out of the cave in two giant lunges, Jata broke into the open space in dead pursuit of a free lunch.
This was the best part, watching Jata walk. Did those European explorers feel the same awe when they caught their first glimpse of a Komodo dragon? Jata walked diagonally, one foot in time with the opposite hind leg, in a sweeping, swaggering motion. Her tail pumped out behind her like a three-foot-long, bone-encrusted rudder, stirring up dirt and leaves and even a few wadded-up napkins in her wake. Sweep, swagger, she walked. Sweep, swagger, and even though her head bobbed up and down in time, her eyes never moved; they had locked in on the restraint-box door. She passed underneath Meg's window and out of sight, and then from inside the box came the clicking of claws on wood, the rustle and brush of scales against the walls, and, finally, after a beat, the juicy rip of chicken. Meg slammed the lever down. She had to be quick. Even sleepy, Jata liked to grab the bait and wriggle back out before she was trapped.
There was a thump in the box near her ankle, a disgruntled tail.
"Sorry, sweetheart, but this won't take long." Patting the box near an airhole, Meg picked up a flashlight and a shovel and let herself into the exhibit.
The few visitors strolling down the Reptile Kingdom path cocked their heads and waited to see if Meg would do anything interesting. Behind bars, humans were just as fascinating as animals. Without breaking stride, Meg scooped up the napkins and chucked them up into the walkway. At least napkins were biodegradable. Freaking people used the turtle pond as a wishing well, and then they had to do surgery to pull $1.85 out of the turtle's stomach. The visitors, a couple of teenagers holding hands, rolled their eyes and kept walking to the exit. No one else appeared around either corner of the path, so after a quick double-check of the keeper's entrance to make sure the coast was clear, Meg clicked off the radio on her belt, turned on the flashlight, and wriggled into the cave.
As a juvenile, Jata had scampered in and out of this place freely, but as the years passed and she grew to more than six feet long and 180 pounds' worth of scale and muscle, the cave became a tight fit, and she'd started burrowing. At first, Meg hadn't even r
Excerpted from The Dragon Keeper by Mindy Mejia. Copyright © 2012 by Mindy Mejia. Excerpted by permission of Ashland Creek Press.
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Posted February 7, 2013
Have you ever known someone who related to animals better than people? I’d bet most of us have. Meg Yancy, the protagonist of The Dragon Keeper, is one of those people. Meg has what for her is the perfect job, working as a Zoo Keeper at the fictional “Zoo of America,” (part of a complex the author has imagined in between the actual Mall of America and the Minnesota River, south of the Minneapolis airport). She works with animals, whom she understands and relates well to, and is able to minimize the need for interactions with people. That changes when events force her to deal with people in order to defend her animals.
The Dragon Keeper has a story that, while classified as a thriller, where you’d expect a character to be at risk, is outside the norm, because the characters most in danger are the animals involved. Meg isn’t lacking in risks, but they aren’t of the life and limb variety. However, there is a lot more going on. A romantic sub-thread, an education about Komodo Dragons, and a subtext that speaks to preserving the environment and evolution, take this further outside of the typical thriller storyline and do so in a good way. Not only is this a fun read, but it’s not one of those books you feel like you’ve read before. Always a plus in my mind.
**Originally written for "Books and Pals" book blog. May have received a free review copy. **