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c. 1905-1984

The most frightening zoo in American history

Scenes from the Los Angeles Alligator Farm.

Don’t worry, they’re all free-range. Or they were. The California Alligator Farm snapped its doors shut for the last time in 1984, thus bringing to an end almost eight decades of the most frightening zoo in America.

The whole thing was the brainchild of two men, Francis Earnest and Joe “Alligator” Campbell. The two of them had a passion for the toothy beasts, started breeding the alligators from eggs, and in 1907 opened their unique attraction in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles with around a thousand pairs of live snapping jaws.

There was even a brochure, and it claimed that some of the alligators were over 500 years old. This is inaccurate, as an American alligator will expire at around 50 years of age. But hey, we can excuse them a little showbiz.

Kids and baby alligators

The price of entry was cheap — a mere quarter. For that price you’d get to sit in a pool of baby alligators and see one of the prime alligators descend at speed down a 16-foot slide (which was no mean achievement, given the gators could be up to 15-feet long). You could also put your child on the back of the creatures, in a specially made saddle — insurance not included.

Fencing was not perfect: It was not unheard of for residents of Lincoln Heights to discover an uninvited guest thrashing around in their swimming pool. Also, when it rained and flooded — which happened — the alligators could emerge into the Lincoln Heights lake.

By the 1950s, residents had had enough. The zoo moved location for good, filling in the twenty-some ponds used to house the animals.  The new site was Buena Park, bu the novelty had (thankfully) worn off. By 1984, annual visitors had dropped below 50,000 and the alligators were sold to a private estate in Florida.

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Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
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Rykoff Collection/Corbis/Getty Images
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Getty Images
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Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Public Library

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