People craned their necks, peered through the plexiglass enclosure, and hoped to catch a glimpse of Turtle Back Zoo's newest star.
Making a low-key entrance, he came walking nonchalantly on his squat, scaly legs through the jungle foliage before resting on a rocky plinth. Shu, the Komodo dragon, fixed his beady eyes at the assembly and flickered his tongue.
Flash bulbs burst as a crowd of children squealed.
It's the year of the dragon, according to the Chinese zodiac, and it's doubly true at the West Orange zoo, which unveiled its very own Komodo dragon in a new exhibit Thursday at the reptile center.
"We are super excited about this," said Jeremy Goodman, zoo director.
The Komodo dragon, the largest lizard in the world, makes Turtle Back Zoo one of 24 zoos in the country that has the lizard, according to Joseph N. DiVincenzo, Jr., Essex County Executive. And they are the only one in the tri-state region that has a Komodo.
The dragon was acquired by the zoo about three years ago from Sedgewick Zoo in Kansas after Turtle Back was on a waiting list for several years and met certain, strict zoo accreditation requirements, Goodman said.
In the beginning when the zoo had acquired him, Shu the dragon was a small thing and was kept in a private enclosure. But Shu has now grown to about four and a half feet long and weighs 40 pounds - half the size of a fully-grown adult, Goodman said. An example for an adult size Komodo is the bronze statue of the lizard near the reptile center.
For meals, Shu eats rodents, fish and quail, Goodman said.
Dragons like Shu are native to several Indonesian islands and are often found in dry, open grassland, savannas and tropical forests, according to a press release from the zoo.
For his new home, Shu the dragon has for company a tortoise and some zebra finches, Goodman said. The enclosure has several tropical plants to give the place a sense of realism.
The dragon exhibit is just another feather in the cap of the zoo, which has seen new animal acquisitions and improvements since DiVincenzo took office in 2003. Currently under construction is a sea lion and sting ray exhibit which is scheduled to open to the public in 2013.
"We have everything going on," said DiVincenzo with pride.