GATORS!

Re-creating the New South

The California Alligator Farm sounds like an oxymoron, inasmuch as California has no alligators, no crocodiles—indeed, no large swimming reptiles of any sort. Our native forebears shot squirrels and ran with deer, gathered nuts and speared fish. But this reptilian preserve earned at least some sense of place—dropping the oxy, if not the moron—from its location across La Palma Avenue from Knott's Berry Farm. Turns out these two amusements actually shared a bit of heehaw history. Right-winger Walter Knott's fascination with the ghost-town West was just as weird, in its own way, as "Alligator Joe" Campbell's affection for trap-jawed swamp-dwelling beasts. Alligator Joe, who got his nickname for obvious reasons, began collecting alligators in Hot Springs, Arkansas, sometime before the turn of the century. He turned them into a tourist attraction with the help of a promotion-minded friend, Francis Ernest. In 1907, the men transported their exhibit to Southern California on railroad cars, changing the name to the Los Angeles Alligator Farm along the way. Over time, management of the attraction passed from Francis Ernest to his son, Francis Jr., and then to his son, Ken, who moved the animals to Buena Park in 1953, when it became the California Alligator Farm.

At its peak, the two-acre site was home to 500 alligators and crocodiles and 500 snakes; some 130,000 people per year paid for the privilege of walking and gawking among them. In the early 1980s, however, attendance dwindled to 50,000 per year. That's the era when I visited, with a group of summer-camp kids, and the Alligator Farm wasn't a pretty sight. The park was a literal concrete jungle: a shallow swimmin' hole for the gators, surrounded by a dismal, industrial chainlink fence and a few scraggly bushes and trees—the foliage intended to recall something of the South, maybe. The alligators slept. It was summer and hotter than the South might ever dream of being in its nightmares, and the gators had piled themselves atop one another like shoes. We stood there staring at the motionless critters for five or maybe 10 minutes. One of the kids, bored, inserted a quarter into a candy machine. But under the ferocious sun—and perhaps through disuse—the candy inside the machine had merged into an immense, hard ball that was home to an ant colony. The machine swallowed his quarter and spat out some ants. The kid wept.

A man in khaki pants and an Alligator Farm T-shirt approached. There was nothing remarkable about him, except for the 15-foot pole he brought with him. We made room for him near the fence. He leaned out over the stagnant concrete pond and probed the pile of alligators, gently at first, like a blind man whose most sensitive appendage is a wooden poker. But getting no response, he suddenly speared one beast sharply in the side. It turned on the pole, jaws agape, delivered a very pissed-off hiss, whipped its muscular tail and scattered its fellow gators. A few of them trundled away on the concrete; one or two slipped into the green water. But my clearest memory is of the employee jabbing a pole deep into the mouth of an alligator 3,000 miles from the nearest swamp. The kids shrieked—out of horror, not joy. One little blond girl turned her angelic face up to me, her cheeks shiny with tears, and sputtered, "Maaa-hay-hay-hay-hayke himmm stopppppppppppppppppppppp!" The worker probed the alligator's dental work and smiled—in a kind of grim way, I thought, like he was enjoying both terrifying the kids and angrifying the alligator. The man's dentifrice looked remarkably like an alligator's. I hugged the little girl, and she leaned into me as if out of a strong wind.

The California Alligator Farm closed in 1984. The animals were moved to a private compound in Florida.

 
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