Arkansas Alligator Farm, Home of the Merman
Hot Springs, Arkansas
The enduring appeal of looking at alligators has kept the Arkansas Alligator Farm in the attraction business since 1902. That -- and the Merman, its leathery mascot.
The Merman, according to a sign at the back of his display tank, was captured about 500 miles off the coast of Hong Kong and exhibited in the National Museum of China. After that, the original owner of the Alligator Farm brought the stuffed half-fish half-monkey to Hot Springs. "He traveled the world, showing off shrunken heads, the Merman, weird things like that," said Stacy McBay, the farm's manager. The weird things stayed at the Alligator Farm even after the owner retired, and while the heads later vanished in a robbery, the bewhiskered, goggle-eyed Merman has remained to horrify the great-great-grandchildren of the farm's original horrified visitors.
Jamie Bridges, third-generation member of the farm's current owners, showed us around the compound. Efforts have been made to diversify the farm with other critters -- you can feed bread to the deer and pygmy goats -- but the main draw has always been the alligators. "Aw-aw! Come on boy! Aw-aw-aw!" Jamie cried as he stomped into one of the outdoor pits, rousing the reptiles from their sunny stupor. Action-packed gator feeding shows happen three days a week in the summer. Jamie once found himself on the menu. A video loop in the gift shop, shot from a mobile phone, shows a hungry gator chewing Jamie's arm bloody in 2008. The arm needed 36 stitches, but Jamie held no grudge against the gator. "I was on Animal Planet," he said with obvious pride.
We were shown a spot in the compound where a baseball hit by Babe Ruth landed, and a small tombstone where alligators ate a dog in 1906. "It must have jumped out of somebody's hands," Jamie said. He added that he didn't really believe the story until he found a postcard of the Farm from 1911 with the tombstone in it. "Alligators get in a feeding frenzy," Jamie said. "A chicken or a duck or a dog; three seconds, they're gone."
Hot Springs gets chilly in winter, which means that the Farm's gators spend six months of the year in its wintering barn, piled in a big, sleepy-eyed hibernating mass under heat lamps. The Farm remains open year-round, so off-season visitors get a unique -- and reportedly pungent -- perspective on alligator life, as well as chance to get close to the toothy gators without fear of being chewed.
The barn is where the Merman resides year-round, which brought our conversations with Stacy and Jamie back to the Farm's longest-lasting resident. Jamie said that Ripley's Believe It or Not once offered his dad $10,000 for the Merman, which was flatly refused. Owners of lesser Mermen (or Fiji Mermaids, as they are often called) succumbed to the sell-out, enriching many Ripley's locations. We aren't complaining; a lot of them otherwise would be rotting in some basement, not on public view. But the Merman at the Arkansas Alligator Farm is big -- a key to the attraction's sparkle in the Roadside firmament.
Stacy said that the delicate spun-glass Mermen once sold in the gift shop were made by an old couple down the street who ran Santa's Workshop (now closed and bulldozed). Both Jamie and Stacy said that a recent TV "documentary" concluded that Mermen are real, although they couldn't recall the particulars. "They found a dead one at the bottom of the ocean," Said Jamie. "It had legs." (The made-up scientists interviewed in that documentary were actors.)
It's clear to us that the best place for a Merman is at an attraction like the Arkansas Alligator Farm, populated with evolutionary nightmares and filled with fans of scaly thrills and grisly discovery. "Repeat customers call all the time and ask, 'Is the Merman still there?'" said Jamie, affirming the Merman's power. "We don't ever want to get rid of it," said Stacy. "But if I thought something like that was swimming out there, I wouldn't go swimming any more."