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Velociraptors attack innocents

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Bill Palmer examines a raptor skeleton. He plans to celebrate Velociraptor Awareness Day by distributing safety pamphlets outside The Field Museum in Chicago with his friend Bill Whirity. (Photo courtesy of Bill Whirity)

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Bill Whirity studies the bone structure and movement of a raptor. He plans to celebrate Velociraptor Awareness Day by distributing safety pamphlets outside The Field Museum in Chicago. (Photo courtesy of Bill Whirity)

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Casey Hunter's poster for the first annual Velociraptor Awareness Day. Parties are planned across the United States and Canada. (Photo courtesy of Casey Hunter)

On a recent February morning in Carmel, Ind., a portable road sign blinked an odd but ominous warning to motorists: “Raptors Ahead Caution.”

The reference to a dinosaur made famous by the film “Jurassic Park” was the work of hackers who saw the sign as an avenue for a prank.

That much is real. But Holden Hill, a freshman at Ball State University who saw the sign on a news report, decided to take it a step further. Together with Charles Gray, 20, a student at Purdue University, he invented and a fictional account of a dinosaur attack.

Hill imagined being surrounded by three raptors. There was no escape. In his final moments, he sent a text message to Gray, asking Gray to avenge his death. His friend obliged—in real life—by forming the Purdue University chapter of the Velociraptor awareness group.

“My friend and colleague will be greatly missed, but his work in the field of Raptor awareness was groundbreaking,” Gray said playing along with Hill’s fantasy during an interview for this story.

Of course, raptors did not really attack Hill. The two freshmen, both loyal readers of the Web comic xkcd, are just pretending that they did. As are hundreds of other xkcd fans in the United States and Canada who have registered for the Velociraptor Awareness Group on Facebook.

On April 17, according to the group page, an estimated 200,000 fans are set to enjoy a simultaneous eruption of silliness, known as Velociraptor Awareness Day.

They plan to host candlelight vigils for victims, screen the “Jurassic Park” movies and discuss strategies to ward off death by the prehistoric reptiles.

“We spread safety facts and promote awareness of nature’s most dangerous killing machine—following Jack Bauer, of course—the Velociraptor,” said Gray.

Velociraptors know no fear. They are big and bad, with sharp teeth. They hunt in packs of three, and surround their prey in a perfect equilateral triangle. They move at 25 meters per second. They can’t be outrun; humans can run at a maximum speed of 6 meters per second. There is no place to hide. Seen Steven Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park”? They can open doors.

That description of raptors comes from xkcd, an online comic strip with a cult following, especially among computer programmers. Randall Munroe, 24, a former contractor with NASA’s Langley Research Center, created the strip in 2006. The hugely popular site receives 500,000 unique visitors a day, and over 80 million page views every month.

The comics feature a particular brand of humor centered on computers, the Internet and sometimes, raptors and raptor attacks.

“The raptor comics are from an honest-to-god phobia I had after I watched ‘Jurassic Park,’” said Munroe. Sitting in class, he would imagine raptors above the ceiling tiles, and examine the doors and windows to make sure there was no possibility of attack. Then in a comic entitled “Velociraptors,” he sketched a building and identified possible raptor entry points.

From there, the fans took over. Hannah Knowlton, who attends Clark University, launched a Facebook group in December 2008 to create awareness of Velociraptor attacks, and the response spiraled into a national movement.

“My friends and I had been joking about having a Velociraptor awareness day for a while, and I created the Facebook event to get things rolling,” said Knowlton. “It got much larger than I ever expected. It’s pretty cool.”

By March, the group had more than 200,000 guests. Students started their own groups in some campuses. Not all members are xkcd fans.

“They are from all over the place,” said Holden Hill of the Ball State Velociraptor Awareness Group. “I think most of them are turned on by the idea of Velociraptors existing.”

The movement went from virtual to real space in early 2009 as groups sprung up in Indiana, New York, Michigan, California, Illinois and elsewhere. People decided to throw parties in their cities to celebrate raptor awareness. It was a chance to meet like-minded people and get together around a common cause.

Casey Hunter, a customer service representative in Minneapolis, is holding one of the parties for April 17. She plans to watch the “Jurassic Park” movies, post warning signs on weak points stating “Velociraptor Entry Point,” and hold a simulated Velociraptor attack at an undisclosed time as a drill against future incidents.

“Once the spring thaws come, we’ll be living with the threat of impending reptilian doom living over our heads every day,” she said.

“What better way to gather all of my friends in one secure, protected location than to ply them with finger foods, the chance to mingle and alcoholic beverages?”

Bill Whirity and Bill Palmer, two friends and co-creators of “Raptor Quest,” a mockumentary, are planning to spread awareness on April 17 by distributing safety pamphlets outside the Field Museum of Natural History in their native Chicago.

“Facebook told me about the day. Nifty, huh,” said Whirity.

And beyond all, it is just a chance to be silly.

“I have absolutely no life, because I am a crusader for the safety of my fellow human being,” said Gray at Purdue University’s Velociraptor Awareness Group.

E-mail: gv2176@columbia.edu