Dinosaur Petting Zoo a different look at dinos

Not every petting zoo contains cuddly, pint-size quadrupeds. For that matter, not every petting zoo features actual living creatures.

Sydney-based visual-spectacle performance troupe Erth Visual and Physical Inc. brings its collection of prehistoric lizard puppets, presented as "Erth's Dinosaur Petting Zoo," to North Park Village Nature Center and Millennium Park over Memorial Day weekend. If you expect to see a T. rex putting on its top hat and brushing off its scales, think again.

For one thing, the discovery in China last year of a relative of the Tyrannosaurus rex with fluffy down has caused researchers to rethink the outer covering of everyone's favorite fearsome carnivore. That attention to scientific detail is at the heart of Erth's production values.

"The thing that we abhor is when people ask if the dinosaurs can sing and dance," says Scott Wright, Erth's artistic director and co-founder. "They don't teach children how to count, and they don't know their ABCs."

Founded in 1990, Erth productions typically use a combination of puppetry, stilt walkers and physical theater. Most of the work in the repertoire is family-friendly, though this year they did unveil their first adults-only show, "Murder," inspired by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' "Murder Ballads."

Erth also aims to create work that, as their website puts it, is "indicative of an Australian culture." What that means for the Dinosaur Petting Zoo is that all the dinosaurs are ones that roamed Australia.

For the current North American tour, Wright says "We're taking a bit about what we've learned about Australian dinosaurs and applying it back to America. The American dinosaur story is unique, and people aren't aware of others. Most adults think that all dinosaurs existed all over the world. And there were very different dinosaurs depending on what land masses you're referring to."

The creative team works closely with paleontologists at museums in Australia and around the world in order to make the puppets as lifelike and accurate as possible. Wright credits Luis Chiappe, curator and director of the Dinosaur Institute of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, with his groundbreaking research into feathered dinosaurs and with talking about "the imagination being a very important tool for paleontology.

"That is a very important lesson for children," he says. In keeping with current ideas about the T. rex, Wright notes that they use a juvenile with feathers in the show.

In structure, Wright says, the Dinosaur Petting Zoo is what Australian "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin "would have done if he were still alive and working with dinosaurs."

Kids are invited up to meet the creatures and feed them, as the team provides information on the names and attributes of the dinosaurs on display. Anyone who doesn't get a chance to go up during the show can meet the dinosaurs (and their handlers) afterward.

"The story is about delivering information," Wright says. "We try to deliver information about dinosaurs but also information about animal husbandry: How you should look after animals, and what you should know when you are responsible for taking care of animals."

Sometimes that means approaching creatures that aren't interested in playing nice. Though the petting zoo includes cute and cuddly specimens, such as a baby version of the Dryosaur (a herbivore) carried in a sling and the Leaellynasaurus (a turkeylike dinosaur whose remains have been found in southeast Australia), the T. rex does show off its fearsome teeth for kids who get too close.

"We don't go out of our way to terrify people, but we certainly don't try to dumb things down to make things a little nicer," Wright says. "T. rexes are big and scary, and they eat you. And that's what everybody knows. As soon as you give it a name and ask it to teach you how to spell, it stops being a T. rex."

Wright notes that he was at the Field Museum three years ago performing during the birthday celebrations for Chicago's favorite dinosaur, Sue, the T. rex.

"The Field Museum is one of my favorites. It inspired me to start writing a new show about a prehistoric aquarium." Wright is also working to develop a show about the Tasmanian tiger, which became extinct rather more recently than the dinosaurs, in 1936.

Wright, who says he "used to carry around a papier-mache dinosaur as a little kid," believes that the combination of accurate scientific information and theatrical stagecraft makes the Dinosaur Petting Zoo unique.

"We wanted to be honest and tell the truth. We tell (the audience) that they are all puppets. And within minutes, they forget."

"Erth's Dinosaur Petting Zoo" appears 7 p.m. Thursday and Friday at North Park Village Nature Center, 5801 N. Pulaski Road. Then 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday through Monday in Millennium Park's Wrigley Square (plus a 5 p.m. dinosaur parade through the park). All performances are free;

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