Editor's note: Happy April Fools' Day!
Dozens of animals at the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo are looking for a new home after the museum's freshly installed dinosaur sculptures went on a spree of destruction Friday night that reduced the building's brand new courtyard to rubble and sent children running for the exits in terror.
Emergency responders and zoo staff swarmed around the beloved Rinconada Park institution overnight to contain the damage and retrieve many of the animals that fled the zoo during the rampage, which began in the museum's recently installed "California Dinosaur Garden" but then spread to other parts of the zoo and the Rinconada Park playground. All but one of the dinosaurs were captured and secured by early Saturday morning, according to a city news release.
"It sounded like the Apocalypse — shrieking, howling, screeching," said Jeff Bright, a Melville Street resident who was having dinner with his family when the mayhem began. "We thought our house was about to be trampled by an elephant stampede or something. Such a relief that it's just — you know — dinosaurs."
The city had installed the menagerie in late December, paying $980,000 for a courtyard exhibit that includes numerous life-sized sculptures of California's native dinosaurs, including an ichthyornis with a fish in its mouth, two hypsilophodontids and a feathered saurornitholestes.
Initially envisioned as a stationary diorama, the "California Dinosaur Garden" became an interactive exhibit earlier Wednesday when museum staff equipped each sculpture with a microchip powered by ChatGPT. The goal, according to Mayor Linda Koo, was to empower the dinosaurs to serve as greeters and docents at the museum, which she said would save the city about $520,000 annually in staffing costs.
Koo stressed that the City Council only approved the artificial-intelligence component of the exhibit on a pilot basis, with the idea of assessing the results within a week. Early signs were positive, she noted, with the dinosaurs quickly teaching themselves how to feed flamingos, groom lemurs and play mahjong.
"It was supposed to be an innocent and immersive educational exhibit and not a destructive bacchanalian orgy, but this is exactly why we have pilot programs, so that we can learn and adjust as needed," Koo said. "Who could have imagined that giving these dinosaurs intelligence would make them act up like this?"
Jonathan Atkinson, the zoo director, said he believes the attack was carefully coordinated, with one of the hypsilophodontids using his mating call to lure museum staff into the museum's cafeteria before locking them inside. Atkinson said he was happy to see that the dinosaurs did not attack the group of teenaged children who had rented out the zoo for a birthday party. After filling up on spiked punch, the dinosaurs reportedly smashed the zoo's walls, decimated the lemur exhibit and liberated a scarlet ibis and two African spoonbills from the museum's "Loose in the Zoo" exhibit.
Atkinson said the damage could have been far worse if not for the efforts of Edward, the museum's African tortoise, who was able to trigger a switch that released the nets in the enclosure, trapping the dinosaurs inside. He also credited Sequoia, the zoo's bald eagle, for luring the dinosaurs into a high-speed chase that brought them out of the Rinconada playground and back into the zoo enclosure.
"We are both devastated by the damage and extremely relieved that miraculously no humans were hurt," said Atkinson as he cradled a traumatized lemur outside the zoo's main entrance on Saturday morning. "I know that we have a strong community. We will learn and we will rebuild and we will be stronger than ever."
But James Geary, who lives in the Community Center neighborhood near Rinconada Park, called the zoo stampede yet another example of the city's misplaced priorities. Geary said he was jolted at about 6 p.m. by "deafening howls" and then saw a flamboyance of flamingos streak past his windows. He then saw the panicked children rush out the museum and called the police.
Geary said he believes the zoo incident is just the latest example of Palo Alto's questionable choices when it comes to technology solutions.
"I know the city is treating this like some crazy freak occurrence, but all I can say is, come on guys! Watch one movie. Just one!" Geary said.