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The Ankylosaurian Tourist

On a recent Saturday morning at the cafeteria of L.A.’s Natural History Museum, a man with a tousled gray mop of hair, multiple earrings, a black T-shirt and cargo pants waited for the cashier to ring up his order. But when the young employee got a look at the man at his register, he blurted out, “Hey, you’re the dino­saur guy!” Dinosaur guys aren’t unexpected at the museum, but this was a dinosaur celebrity — Australia’s Scott Wright, keeper of the ankylosaur known as Minmi, who was in the middle of a two-week L.A. engagement (just ended) at the museum. The cashier flipped open his cell phone, and there was Wright’s picture with Minmi. Wright smiled warmly as he paid for his midmorning snack, a bag of Lay’s potato chips.

The original Minmi roamed Australia during the Cretaceous period — from 113 million to 119 million years ago — near Queensland’s Minmi Crossing, and wasn’t discovered until 1980. Today’s Minmi has been spending her days here waddling around the polar-bear and California-wapiti dioramas in the museum’s North American Mammal Hall. She was conceived five years ago after Wright’s puppetry-performance troupe Erth collaborated with the scientists at the Melbourne Museum to create an amazing replica of the relatively petite herbivore (Minmi was thought to be 4 and a half feet tall and just under 10 feet long).

With almost an hour to go before his next appearance with Minmi, Wright took his chips to a box-lined room in the education department. There, suspended between two clothing racks from three lines of rope and three hook-shaped key chains, was Minmi at rest. Volcanic-looking spikes lined her armored back, and her amber eyes were wide and curious; her tail slinked behind her into a narrow point, and her terra-cotta-and-black-flecked skin appeared as camouflage, ready for combat. Minmi had no wires, no animatronics and no strings, but her underside revealed an open zipper and an empty belly. Minmi was limp, waiting to be brought to life.

That part of the act is the job of Wright’s Erth troupe mate Sharon Kerr. With her gymnast’s frame, Kerr inhabits Minmi four times a day to give her the motion of an ambling, feeding, fleshy dinosaur, while Wright gives audiences information about Minmi’s diet and natural habitat.

“We worked with paleontologists for accuracy,” Wright noted of Minmi’s leathery rubber skin. And instead of robotics — Wright and other Erth members felt that people would recognize anything with wires or a remote control as fake — the troupe went for old-fashioned puppetry. With enormous puppets, Wright said, “people want to believe. It’s not hard to convince people she’s real.”

Kerr, who has straight, deep-red hair, came into the room and almost immediately sat cross-legged and began stretching on a floor mat while Wright described how, earlier in their visit to Los Angeles, they took their Minmi act to Hollywood Boulevard, just outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater, among the “second-rate Darth Vaders,” as Kerr called them. Wright observed “a Homer Simpson with dishwashing gloves for hands and a Catwoman who was too large to be Halle Berry.” But the visit, Wright said, was triumphant: “Minmi gave both the audience and those characters a run for their money.”

The clock ticked to 11:18. Wright changed from his black T-shirt into a black, button-up shirt, and secured an official-looking headset. Kerr traded her jeans for Lycra shorts. Then Wright rubbed Kerr’s back with Tiger Balm and outfitted her with towels for padding. Now she was ready to enter the belly of the beast. Nimbly, she stepped into the suit and was suddenly cloaked in darkness. A moment later, Minmi’s hind legs began to wiggle, then the front ones. With a long, noisy zip and the squeak of a mic, Minmi was alive and well. She padded cautiously past the elevators and into the dark-wood-paneled Mammal Hall to meet her public: 24 ooh-ing and aah-ing kids and eight skeptical-but-game parents. “The sign said she’s real,” said one little girl getting her first look at Minmi. “I know she’s real.”

Wright introduced Minmi and let her wander across the room — bumping her head on the exit doors and then nudging the base of an empty diorama vitrine. When Minmi made her way back to Wright, he gave her eyes a routine checkup and a few drops of saline solution. Then he set down a bowl of water, from which Minmi lapped happily, and offered a snack in the form of a few blades of grass, which she refused. Next, he called up a young boy named Lucas to help with a trick: hypnotizing the dinosaur. Lucas was instructed to focus Minmi’s eyes with his finger, and to keep her gaze as he drew imaginary plus signs on the floor. Minmi followed Lucas’ uncertain gestures and appeared to get a little sleepier. As Lucas ran back into his mother’s arms, he said, with several emphatic nods, “She’s real and she’s scary.”