Above the small tunnel that leads to the cichlid fish exhibit at Palo Alto's newly renovated Junior Museum and Zoo, sprawling fake tree roots, meticulously sculpted to blend into the natural elements of the facility, hang over the entrance.
The zoo's executive director, John Aikin, grabbed onto one of the artificial roots to squat down during a media preview of the facility on Thursday to demonstrate how someone in a wheelchair might access the crawl space. The roots were not arranged like that by accident but by careful design to assist visitors with special needs, Aikin explained.
The new Junior Museum and Zoo, which is set to reopen on Nov. 12, was designed with a focus on accessibility for visitors of all mental and physical abilities, Aikin said.
"Our exhibits all have multiple ways of approaching them," said Aikin, who joined the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo staff in 2008. "They engage people of different ages, knowledge bases, and they include people of different abilities."
After two years of construction, the expanded Junior Museum and Zoo (JMZ) boasts nearly double the square footage of the old facility. The expansion — from 19,000 square feet to nearly 34,000 square feet — includes larger classrooms and a deck that will host educational programs. But the centerpiece of the new facility is an 18,000-square-foot outdoor zoo, which houses more than 50 animal species and features a two-story, wheelchair-accessible tree house that parents and children can climb to get an overview of the zoo's landscape.
The campus' main indoor building is an ode to science with interactive exhibits that allow children to experience gravity, motion, electricity and magnetism, among other natural phenomena.
Visitors can push a golf ball onto a winding track and follow its path in the museum's ball exhibit or see the contortion of the magnetic field by playing with magnetic sand.
In front of each exhibit are signs written in two languages — Spanish and English — with "highly readable text" and some Braille, according to Aikin. There are also QR codes to provide visitors with aids for reading or seeing, he said.
In addition to the more subtle accessibility features are two large calming nooks (one inside and outside) with "bubble walls" to provide a safe, quiet space for over-stimulated children or nursing mothers. There also are restroom stalls that include adult-sized changing tables.
Aikin credits much of the facility's focus on accessibility to Tina Keegan, an exhibits director at JMZ.
"Tina Keegan took on the initiative to make the most accessible museum in the country," Aikin said during the tour. "And I think we're definitely heading there."
The reopening of the popular city attraction comes after two years of construction and the temporary relocation of animals and programs to Cubberley Community Center.
A majority of the $33-million project — about $25 million — was funded by donations to the Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. About $10 million came from private donations from local donors, along with an $8 million contribution from the city, according to a press release.
With the hefty investment, the city was able to double the size of JMZ at its original site at the Rinconada Park at 1451 Middlefield Road.
"In talking about sites and where we were going to rebuild, we decided to rebuild on our site in Palo Alto, which kept us constrained," Aikin told the Palo Alto Weekly. "It meant that we had to stay small because we're in a residential neighborhood. But the relationship that this institution has with its community was well worth that trade-off."
The new outdoor zoo area is called Loose-in-the-Zoo and attempts to immerse people into the context of natural wildlife habitats, Aikin said. The area features various plant life, boulders and water structures.
There, visitors have an opportunity to feed American flamingos over the screech of Manusela, a Moluccan cockatoo named after the Manusela National Park, or visit Edward, a 21-year-old rescued African tortoise raised by a local Palo Alto family.
Overhead is a netted roof that allows most of the zoo's birds to roam freely alongside guests, except for the colorful macaws, which according to Aikin, are equipped with beaks strong enough to crack open Brazil nuts. (Their wings are clipped, the director assured.)
The animals at JMZ come from a wide range of sources: Some are rescues from local households; others come from accredited zoos from around the globe, according to Aikin.
"The scarlet ibises, the flamingos, the African spoonbills, the hammerkop, the Von der Deken's hornbill, the ring-tailed lemurs — all are part of a population of animals in accredited zoos that are managed for the long haul, which means that we know about their genetics and we move them around and breed them appropriately to preserve genetic diversity," he said.
The JMZ was in the final stages of completion during Thursday's media tour. Some animals such as the lemurs had yet to arrive at the facility due to travel restrictions. (According to Aikin, lemurs are able to be infected with COVID-19 just like humans and consequently are unable to travel on commercial airlines for now.)
The facility will be run by 20 half-time staff members and eight full-time employees, Aikin said. Each staff member is in the process of being trained to know how to interact and be mindful of parents with children who may be on the autism spectrum.
"We now have kits to train staff and consultants that come in so that everybody understands how you can help a mom whose got an overstimulated kid on the spectrum, and be respectful to her and everybody around them, so that we make the process as inclusive, painless and accommodating as possible," Aikin said.
The zoo is set to open to the public on Nov. 12. Visitors will have to purchase tickets in advance at cityofpaloalto.org.