The brainchild of Francis Earnest and “Alligator” Joe Campbell, the Los Angeles Alligator Farm housed its namesake creatures — some five hundred years old, if the rather fanciful ad copy is to be believed — in a series of age-segregated pools to prevent them from devouring each other. Along with nearby attractions like the Cawston Ostrich Farm and the Selig Zoo, the Alligator Farm was a mainstay of another major LA claim to fame: Hollywood. Billy, a denizen of the park that reportedly weighed over two hundred pounds, proved particularly popular on studio lots because, as one journalist put it, “his jaws automatically opened when a chunk of meat dangled above his head just above the camera’s field of vision”. The farm became such a local staple that LA fraternities reportedly demanded that new pledges kidnap alligators as part of their hazing rituals.
Visitors — and their pets — could get alligator carriage rides or watch them rocket down slides; toddlers could have their picture taken with a crowd of hatchlings and even bring one home at the end of the day. Souvenirs sold by the park included postcards trafficking in “gator bait” imagery, a racist trope depicting Black children threatened by alligators that was common in American popular culture of the period.
The lack of regulations for the safety of captive animals, staff, or visitors allowed for a level of casual proximity with adult alligators that would be unthinkable today. One photo shows a group of young women enjoying a half-submerged picnic in a park enclosure complete with what the caption claims to be a birthday cake for one of the reptiles. A keeper stands to one side, club in hand, to make sure nothing goes awry. Perhaps another picture offers a clue to what kept the creatures in line: a clutch of babies emerge from their incubator, only to be greeted in life by the sight of an enormous alligator-skin purse.
Below you can browse photographs of the Los Angeles Alligator Farm courtesy of USC Libraries.
May 11, 2023