Now, zoo staff must answer: 'Which animals are real?'

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Is it live, or is it "dinotron"? I had to laugh when I read that the Los Angeles Zoo had opened a robotic dinosaur exhibit last month. When I spent a couple of summers working at the information booth of another large zoo, we kept a list of the most unusual questions of the day. "Where are the dinosaurs?" was one of the classics.

As streams of visitors (thousands per day) flooded around our island-like booth, we anticipated with eagerness and dread the waves of questions. Of course we realized that the 999th person to ask "Where's the bus tour?" hadn't heard our 998 prior replies. So we patiently pointed to the 10-foot-high "BUS" sign behind us once again and cheerfully moved on.

Surprisingly, "Where are the dinosaurs?" was asked by more than a handful of adults as well as children. We surmised they must have been thinking of the Komodo dragons (we had no robots), but had to gently explain that actual dinosaurs had been extinct for millions of years. We were grateful we could direct these inquirers to the reptile house to see the dinos' living modern relations.

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Visitors seeking giant pandas - another critter in demand - had to be referred to distant zoos or to China. At least all our animals were animate, though, and we could give a ready "yes!" to the question, "Are all the animals real?"

The sales questions were more peculiar. Do you sell underwear? Inflatable life preservers? Toy guns? We did not, and were particularly perplexed by the frequency of the toy gun inquiry, as zoos are in the animal-preservation business. Most visitors didn't recognize the irony of their question. (The mystery was solved when we found that an animal theme park in the region sold toy guns.) Despite such odd merchandise requests, we dutifully directed the zoo visitors along to the appropriate local stores.

The most difficult questions were hypothetical. We never could answer "Where do lost children go?" We sent these questioners scurrying to the security desk for a loudspeaker announcement if they needed to locate their own lost relations.

Almost as unanswerable was "How do you get everyone out when you close?" Except for staff pointing visitors back toward the entrance, there wasn't a method to track all visitors out. We warned inquirers that when it got dark, it got very dark, and one didn't want to get lost out there in the maze of pathways wondering who or what was making each unfamiliar noise. (Peacocks' human-like cries sound especially eerie in the evening.) A co-worker once jokingly told some visitors that "We let the lions loose," and that moved them out the gates more quickly. (But it was the antelopes that occasionally jumped the moats and fences, not the large cats.)

With the arrival of robotic creatures in zoos, I imagine that this summer's zoo staffs will entertain an extensive list of new unusual questions:

"How do we know which animals are real?"

"Do the robots bite?"

"Are you sure the dinosaurs are extinct?"

"Is it live, or is it 'dinotron'?"

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