Apatosaurus Statue Stirs Controversy in San Juan Capistrano

Image credit: Courtesy Nicole Pena

As the sun rises over one of the oldest neighborhoods in California, San Juan Capistrano Zoomars Petting Zoo is preparing for the inevitable parade of children piling in to get their hands on ponies, llamas, rabbits, donkeys and horses.

It's a routine owner Carolyn Franks has been used to for the past eight years. After all, the zoo has attracted over three million visitors for 30 years. Yet, the zoo has a new controversial visitor that is stirring the community.

"I saw this amazing beautiful fiber glass dinosaur in 10 pieces around the floor, but I could see it was a really cool thing," said Franks. "What a great way to get the kids excited."

The Apatosaurus now stands tall in the middle of the zoo, with its long neck peeking over onlookers half its height.

Franks bought the dinosaur for $12,000, hoping to build a discovery dig activity for children within the zoo.

"It's fun, it's educational, it's history, and again it's for little kids, so you have to make it engaging," said Franks. "I thought the dinosaur would be a great vehicle to do that having no idea it would be a controversial issue."

Since the Apatosaurus made its debut, members of the local community and particularly the San Juan Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee want the dinosaur removed.

"It's not the dinosaur so much," said Jerry Nieblas, president and founder of San Juan Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee. "It's where she chose to put it and how she chose to put it there."

Nieblas says he founded the committee several years ago to be a voice for the local community regarding changes to historical buildings, character and makeup that were occurring. The committee's mission statement reads, "With integrity, the Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee proudly recognizes, respects and honors all the historical elements of San Juan Capistrano, its lands, its structures, its families and its tradition."

"There's a continuity of history on that street that tells its story about early California rancho, early California life, and now all of a sudden we've got this dinosaur, and experts have said that kind of dinosaur didn't roam this area."

Zommars Petting Zoo is located on Los Rios Street, which is lined with historic sites, including the 200-year-old San Juan Capistrano Mission just under a mile away.

"It's interfered with the historical makeup and flavor of that street," said Nieblas. "It doesn't fit that continuity," he says of the fiberglass dinosaur.

The committee filed a complaint with the city that accused owner Carolyn Franks of not following proper city regulations.

"The city came out and the city hit me with a cease and desist violation and it said, 'unpermitted brontosaurus,'" said Frank. "They say that I need a building permit for this statue."

Franks will go in front of San Juan Capistrano's planning commission January 8 for a decision on the dinosaur. While some members of the community are eager to preserve the old history of San Juan Capistrano, Franks has a different outlook on the statue.

"There's a cool mix, and this alliance group is very myopic in thinking the area should only be representative of the 1700s and 1800s, because if you walk down the street it's clearly not," said Franks. "The kids just love it and getting kids excited about history is not always easy."

If the planning commission decides to allow the dinosaur to stay, the San Juan Capistrano Historical Alliance Committee could still appeal the decision.

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