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"Fideaux," a 14-foot-long taxidermy alligator, greets visitors with a smile.

Great American Alligator Museum

Field review by the editors.

New Orleans, Louisiana

"If you look at an alligator's face and catch it it just right," said Liz McDade, co-owner if the Great American Alligator Museum, "it looks like he's grinning or laughing."

Head-in-the-hole gator wrestler photo-op outside the museum.
Head-in-the-hole gator wrestler photo-op outside the museum.

Grinning, that is, just before he clamps his smile around your leg and swallows you whole.

Liz and her husband, Robert, began collecting alligator paraphernalia in the 1990s. They aren't bayou rustics: she's a retired geoscientist and he's a retired petroleum engineer. "We were fascinated by the variety of things that had been made into alligators, and out of alligators," Liz said. The first item in their collection was an alligator leg backscratcher purchased in the early '80s by Liz's father; reassuring evidence, he said, that the American alligator was no longer an endangered species. "We still have that one backscratcher," said Liz. "In the meantime I've seen probably 100,000 alligator backscratchers."

Gator body parts, formerly loathed by the Louisiana hide and meat industry as hard-to-dispose-of biological waste, have become totems of alligator abundance and a success story of souvenir-style recycling. Tourists who would feel bad purchasing a piece of another animal are perfectly fine buying an alligator tooth necklace, or an alligator foot, or an alligator head. All of them are popular items in the Alligator Museum gift shop.

A big reason for that, of course, is that no matter how much a gator may smile, it is not cuddly. "They're like dinosaurs, and they live among us," said Liz, although Louisiana gators usually live in areas away from humans, while in Florida you might find one in your pool or garage. This significantly lowers the alligator vs. human body count in Louisiana, giving the gator a friendly local reputation. Unlike other New Orleans attractions featuring voodoo, war, death, and leeches, the Great American Alligator Museum is a happy place.

Pondering the exhibits.
Pondering the exhibits. "We have a lot of people who leave surprised that they learned something."

Season your food from a ceramic gator.
Season your food from a ceramic gator.

Visitors inside the museum are surrounded by all things gator, as if they'd been metaphorically eaten by one. "Fideaux," a 14-foot-long taxidermy behemoth, is the centerpiece; Liz said that it had been in the McDade family for over a quarter-century. Other taxidermy gators hang from the ceiling, specially prepared, Liz said, to look as if they're swimming. A live baby gator basks in a large terrarium; Liz assured us that it's officially licensed with the state. When it grows too big for the museum, the alligator is returned by the McDades to the swamp, who then foster another licensed baby.

Liz and Robert's wide-ranging collection of gator-related artifacts makes you wonder why there hasn't been an alligator museum before now. Gators have clearly found their way onto almost everything: ashtrays, lamps, slippers, brushes, cookie jars, salt and pepper shakers. "Why would someone make a lawn sprinkler with an alligator?" wondered Liz, a question that could honestly be asked of items such as the museum's alligator hot water bottle and alligator electric "ga-tar." Plush toys emphasize the gator's cuddly alter-ego. Hundred-year-old figurines made from baby alligators still have that toothy grin, as do vintage handbags of alligator skin with the heads attached.

Alligator-head handbags were fashionable in the 1920s.
Alligator-head handbags were fashionable in the 1920s.

The museum features a room of alligator folk art with bizarre Mardi Gras gator costumes and weird gator-hybrids stitched together by John Preble at the Abita Mystery House. Separate displays are devoted to alligator farms and alligator wrestling. There's a photo gallery from the 1959 sci-fi film The Alligator People; another of classic alligator attraction post cards; another described by Liz as "alligators doing crazy things, or people doing crazy things with alligators." The McDades, given their professional backgrounds, are especially proud of the museum's 50-million-year-old fossil alligator from Wyoming: one of only two in the world, according to Liz. Another prehistoric gator on display appears to have been assembled by the same paleo-artisan who created Arizona's Wild Bill on Route 66.

A million years old. Still grinning.
A million years old. Still grinning.

One showcase exhibit, titled simply "Deformed Heads," feature gator skull malformations collected by the McDades over the years -- caused by either rouge genes in the egg or rival alligators in the swamp pit. "When you see thousands of them, you're gonna come across one or two," said Liz of the skulls, although she and Robert have yet to find a two-headed gator.

The museum's "Original Urban Legend" exhibit discusses alligators in the sewers of New York City. Word of it reached Bob Adamski, chief of New York's division of sewer maintenance. "For 20 years he'd been getting alligator mementoes as gifts," Liz said. "When he retired he called us and asked if we wanted his collection." The McDades, of course, said yes, and it was officially added to the museum when Bob traveled to New Orleans for a water quality convention in 2022. "He stood on an alligator rug," Liz remembered. "He held court while we had a party for him."

One imagines that he had a smile as big as an alligator's.

Great American Alligator Museum

Address:
2051 Magazine St., New Orleans, LA
Directions:
In the Garden District, on the north side of Magazine St. at its intersection with Josephine St.
Hours:
Hours vary, but usually open daily 1:30-5. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
504-528-3000
Admission:
Donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

National WWII MuseumNational WWII Museum, New Orleans, LA - < 1 mi.
Mardi Gras WorldMardi Gras World, New Orleans, LA - < 1 mi.
Lighthouse BuildingLighthouse Building, New Orleans, LA - 1 mi.
In the region:
Museum of Death, New Orleans, LA - 2 mi.

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