Lions and Ostriches and Gators, Oh My!—Los Angeles Animal Farms in the 1920s

by Isis Quan Gay riding on lionPluto and Mr. Gay at Gay’s Lion Farm, ca. 1920.

In the 1920s, zoos were beginning to take root in Los Angeles, but these early zoos weren’t the only animals in town. Animal farms like the California Alligator Farm and the Cawston Ostrich Farm were popular tourist attracts and drew visitors from all walks of life. These animal farms (not to be confused with farms for food production) were promoted on the attraction of a single species, as opposed to zoos, which featured a more diverse menagerie. The popularity of animal farms was at its height during the ‘20s, but today few comparable facilities still exist. Why were these farms so popular, and why don’t more exist today?

2008.326.1.1 Alligator Farm July 1920A snapshot of an alligator farm at Los Angeles, July 1920

One key reason for the popularity of the farms was the animal interaction that they promised. At the time, there were few opportunities for the people of Southern California to see wild or exotic animals. Dangerous and/or odd animals were alluring to the public, and visitors flocked to the farms to view the unusual creatures. However, farms offered an even more substantial attraction: first-hand contact, through petting, feeding, or even riding the animals. It is easy to imagine that someone who had never seen something more peculiar than a dog would have been thrilled to sit atop a gator.

While most farms made large tourism profits, they also often had secondary sources of revenue. Fashion, food, and films were big industries for Southern California animal farms. Animals that were put on display at the farms could be starring in a movie the next day, or eventually be repurposed as a purse or even end up on someone’s plate. Animal farms often had to bring in multiple forms of revenue in order to offset the costs of animal care and management.

2012.673.1.1 more images frm Cawston souvenior pamphletFeather processing at Cawston’s Ostrich Farm, ca. 1910

So, if the farms were successful in the ‘20s, why don’t we see them as popular attractions today? Though each farm failed for a different set of reasons, a major cause was changing ethics. Today, we worry about the safety of both animals and humans in facilities like zoos. Safety precautions are important to the success of animal industries, and today it would be considered abusive, unethical, and illegal to continue many of the practices of the ‘20s animal farms. The animal rights movement was just beginning to bud in the ‘20s, with the passing of the Lacey Act and groups like the Audubon Society rallying for change. However, true animal welfare laws only began to fall in place in the 1960s.

Additionally, the secondary incomes of the 1920s farms are also largely unacceptable by today’s standards. Fur and other animal fashion products face growing critique, and participation in entertainment and media is strictly regulated for animal safety. Even the consumption of animals, particularly those of a predatory nature, faces growing regulation. Overall, the conditions and methodology of animal farms in the ‘20s could not succeed in our modern Los Angeles society.

If you are interested in this topic. be sure to check out our “Lions and Ostriches and Gators, Oh My!” exhibit this weekend at the Ticket to the Twenties festival.

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