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Zoo might land dinosaurs

Talks begin with Texas company for a roaring new 2008 exhibit
by: Submitted, A tyrannosaurs rex model made by Billings Productions Inc. of McKinney, Texas, is just an example of the kind of animatronic dinosaurs that could be part of The Oregon Zoo display next year.

The Oregon Zoo could go back in time for its newest exhibit. Way back in time.

In about a year, zoo officials hope to set up a temporary exhibit of life-like dinosaurs.

If negotiations with a small Texas company go well, the zoo could lease about 20 mechanical dinosaurs of all shapes and sizes - a good assortment of carnivores and herbivores - for a new exhibit that could open next May in an area behind the bear grotto and near the elephant section.

'These would be very large animatronic dinosaurs,' said Carmen Hannold, the Oregon Zoo's deputy director of operations. 'The biggest one is 40 feet long. They would be things that move and make a noise for the walk-through experience.'

Zoo staff began looking early this year for a company to provide the dinosaur exhibit. Proposals were sought from companies a month ago. Only Billings Productions Inc. of McKinney, Texas, submitted a plan May 23 (with four options) for the exhibit.

Hannold said the zoo and Billings Productions are just beginning to negotiate the lease of the dinosaurs. The zoo has budgeted about $250,000 for the project, and could spend a little less than that if talks go well, she said.

The zoo hopes to have a contract in hand by August, Hannold said.

In a proposal, zoo staff asked for about two dozen models that roar and move, including a tyrannosaurus rex, a stegosaurus, a brachiosaurus, a triceratops and a megalosaurus.

Oh, yeah, the zoo also would like an egg nest, associated greenery that goes along with the time-period exhibit and spare parts - claws, teeth and other things that proper dinosaurs shouldn't travel without.

Wonderful things

Billings Productions is one of about a dozen robotic dinosaur companies around the world that provide creatures for exhibits in zoos, museums and motion pictures.

Some of the company's large flying bug models have been seen on the movie screen, Hannold said.

In November, Billings provided some of its animatronic dinosaurs, including the megalosaurus, for the independent horror film 'Raptor Ranch' that was filming in Celeste and Leonard, Texas.

The company has about 10 employees who help transport and set up exhibits. Billings Productions provides creatures for about four zoos each year, said Sandra Billings, who has run the company since mid-March, when her husband and company founder, Larry Billings, died.

Its inventory includes about 80 model dinosaurs with 20 or more species, Sandra Billings said. Most of the robotic creatures were built by Larry Billings, who created 60 of them in 2004, the year the company was launched.

'We practically slept at the office during that time,' Sandra Billings said.

After Larry Billings' death, Sandra and her son, 23-year-old Trey, kept the company going to honor his legacy.

'Larry always said that zoos do such a wonderful thing with the conservation of animals, but they need money,' Sandra Billings said. 'He worked hard to help them with good exhibits that made money for them. He really believed in that, and that's what we're trying to do.'

Nice assortment

Plans are in the works to set up the new 20-creature exhibit sometime in May 2008 and let it run for about five months, ending in September.

The exhibit would be separate from other parts of the zoo and would require an additional admission fee. Regular zoo admission is $9.75 for adults, $8.25 for senior citizens and $6.75 for children 3 to 11.

Hannold said most zoos around the country that have used the creatures found 20 to be just about the right number, as long as there was 'a nice assortment' of big, little, mean, cute and interesting models.

'Kids love dinosaurs, almost as much as they love elephants,' she said.

The zoo has had quite a bit of success with temporary exhibits in the past. Reptiles and exotic butterflies have been the star attractions at previous exhibits, boosting the zoo's summer attendance.

With the robotic dinosaurs, the zoo is branching out from its usual prehistoric experience. For the past few years, the zoo has had the 'Dino Island' thrill ride by SimEx-Iwerks in its theater as a summer program.

Those dinosaurs are two-dimensional, not the giant roaring robotic dinosaurs planned for the new exhibit.

'It's been done at other zoos very well,' Hannold said. 'And every year we've done something for a new exhibit, so this is the next one.'



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