If you haven’t been to the zoo since the pandemic started, some of its latest additions might surprise you. From a 35-foot-tall Brachiosaurus to a feathered feeding frenzy, the zoo’s newest exhibit introduces visitors to species that lived more than 100 million years ago.
This summer, 22 life-size animatronic dinosaurs have taken up residence in the Habitat Discovery Loop at Woodland Park Zoo. The robots are placed in naturalistic scenes that reflect what is known of dinosaur behavior in a special temporary exhibit called Dinosaur Discovery. The exhibit was designed by Don Lessem, the science adviser for the film “Jurassic Park” and president and CEO of Dino Don Inc. His Pennsylvania-based company builds accurate dinosaur reconstructions for museums and zoos across the country.
“We wanted to bring an exciting new experience to the zoo this summer season for families to enjoy together,” said Woodland Park Zoo Chief Financial Officer Michele Smith. “People of all ages can learn about life as it was millions of years ago, walking among dozens of massive, roaring, breathtaking prehistoric giants. Plus, dinosaurs have a connection to many of the animals at our zoo that are living here today, like birds and raptors.”
Lessem was a science writer for The Boston Globe when he was assigned a story about some colorful characters shaking up the paleontology world.
“I never went back to the newspaper,” says Lessem. Since then he has written dozens of children’s books about dinosaurs, including “National Geographic Kids Ultimate Dinopedia.”
“That one is the most satisfying because when I was a kid, I wanted to know every single dinosaur. Of course it’s already outdated. We’re in a renaissance of dinosaurs,” Lessem says. The number of known dinosaur species has doubled in 20 years, and we’ve learned a lot more about their anatomy and how they lived.
Lessem has visited nearly every dinosaur dig in the world. In Argentina, he helped assemble both the largest carnivore and the largest herbivore that ever lived. In Mongolia, he developed a new interest that led to The Real Genghis Khan traveling history exhibit. Three years ago, visiting a dig in China, he saw the village where most of the world’s animatronic dinosaurs are made.
“Ladies with X-ACTO knives and couch cushions make them by hand there,” he said.
Lessem thought he could do better. He relies on paleontologists to provide anatomical details for full-sized, scientifically accurate reconstructions while he designs the exhibits to demonstrate dinosaur behaviors. The science is solid, but Lessem says that’s not the point.
“It’s more about what people feel than what they learn. There are lots of ways to learn about dinosaurs. This is the only way to see them and get that feeling of awe and wonder at their unrivaled scale and bizarre appearance. That’s what captivates kids and adults who haven’t lost the capacity to get excited about things,” he said. “And teenagers, who think dinosaurs aren’t cool anymore, they see them and change their minds.”
Thanks to a recent appearance on Shark Tank, where he won a $500,000 investment, Lessem plans to develop a traveling exhibit. But the 15 exhibits he’s made so far, including the one for Woodland Park Zoo, have all been custom designs.
“Woodland Park is such a great setting, because it’s already forest. Seattle really feels like you’re there in their world,” Lessem said. At Woodland Park Zoo’s Dinosaur Discovery, visitors are greeted by the tallest animal that ever lived — the Brachiosaurus. Farther into the exhibit, a mother dinosaur grazes with her young. In a scene copied from 115-million-year-old fossils found in Montana, four feathered raptors attack a plant-eater. There is also a Lessemsaurus.
“A scientist in Argentina named it for me. It has a tiny head and a big belly. It’s shaking a tree in Woodland Park,” Lessem said.
Woodland Park Zoo recently reopened several areas, including parts of the Family Farm, and expects to open fully by the end of June. Masks for all guests ages 5 and older are required indoors and strongly encouraged outdoors. Tickets to Dinosaur Discovery ($5, in addition to zoo admission) must be purchased inside the zoo at the entrance to the exhibit.
For at-home learning, activities on the Dino Don web page include a monthly scavenger hunt with a dinosaur robot prize. The You Bet Jurassic podcast is aimed at adults, but is generally appropriate for kids.