When S.F.Chronicle Executive Editor Phil Bronstein got out of the hospital and returned to his house in Southern California yesterday, year-old Roan gave his dad a stuffed Komodo dragon as a welcome-home present. It was a warm and fuzzy gift, a souvenir of an incident that undoubtedly won’t ever require a tangible forget-me-not.
It’s not every day — or every month, or every year — that a newsman out with his wife for a pre-Father’s Day jaunt gets attacked by a 6-foot-10-inch- long reptile, undergoes reconstructive surgery and winds up watching from his hospital bed as Jay Leno jokes about it. “He was pretty funny,” Bronstein said yesterday by phone from L.A. “I laughed out loud at several points.”
Bronstein’s left leg is encased in a cast that goes halfway up his calf; he’s hoping that it will be changed tomorrow to a walking cast, which he’ll wear for three to four weeks. It may take as long as four months before Bronstein is able to play basketball “as badly as I used to,” but he plans to be back on the job Monday.
So here’s how it went down, in the words of the victim, who owns several pets and proclaims “I am a big animal fan and will continue to be” (as for the other side of the story, the Komodo dragon isn’t commenting):
“Like a lot of little kids, I always loved lizards and salamanders and was fascinated with stories and photos of prehistoric beasts and dinosaurs,” said Bronstein. “The Komodo dragon is really one of the closest things to prehistoric reptiles that live on Earth in modern times. I’ve always talked about it.”
Sharon Stone, Bronstein’s wife, planned to surprise her husband with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Los Angeles Zoo that would begin with a stop chez dragon. Bronstein and Stone were standing outside the 10-by-20-foot enclosure for 4-year-old Komo when its keeper asked if he’d like to go in.
“I said, ‘Of course, why not?’ ” Bronstein pauses for a fraction of a second. “Hindsight’s a wonderful thing.”
He was already inside, standing next to Komo, when the keeper noticed the 55-pound (enviably slim, which might explain its hunger) dragon giving the eye to Bronstein’s tennis-shoe-clad feet. “The keeper said maybe it wasn’t a good idea for me to wear my shoes because he eats white rats.”
Bronstein’s socks were white (the incident proves that this is never a good idea), so he took them off, too. He had his hand on the dragon’s head, “kind of petting it,” as though it were a dog. “It responded fine.”
He was standing inches from the animal. “Sharon was taking a picture, and the keeper said, ‘Why don’t you move around so she can get a better picture?’ ” The dragon struck Bronstein’s left foot, which had been raised a bit off the ground. “Within seconds,” it crushed the big toe and tore two tendons.
Instinctively, Bronstein slammed his foot down, anchoring the dragon’s lower jaw to the ground. “If I’d fallen,” he says, “I would have been victim to his serrated teeth.” Pulling the dragon’s head down also prevented it from waving its head and tearing Bronstein’s foot even worse in the process.
While Stone looked on from the other side of the enclosure, Bronstein pried the dragon’s upper jaw off his foot, hobbled away and dived for the door from the outside cage to the inside of the reptile house. The keeper was “shocked,” says Bronstein, and “didn’t approach” as he freed himself.
Bronstein lay on the floor of the reptile house for about 45 minutes, waiting for the paramedics. He doesn’t think he lost a huge amount of blood, but “it’s always an interesting experience looking into your own body. It was clear he’d done some serious damage to my foot. Sharon took one of my socks and put a tourniquet around my foot.”
Bronstein and Stone waited inside for help — “Sharon was asking and working on it the whole time” — along with the keeper and another zoo employee.
He was operated on at UCLA hospital the same afternoon and is particularly grateful to the reconstruction expert, Dr. Malcolm Lesavoy, and Dr. Bernie Kubek, an infectious-disease expert, both “really amazing.” To say that the attack is rare is an understatement; nonetheless, “it didn’t seem to faze them at all.” Because the saliva of Komodo dragons contains potentially deadly bacteria, Bronstein is receiving major doses of antibiotics.
Being attacked by a savage, primitive animal is a serious matter, of course, but Bronstein says he was prepared for the jokes that followed the stories as quickly as the dragon’s tail followed its body. “I sort of understood the absurdity of it right away. You can’t not find it bizarre. Any experience that has the word ‘dragon’ in it has a special, I don’t know, something about it. . . . Next time I’ll stick to petting zoos.”