For nearly twenty years, Plush Acres Petting Zoo of Cullman, Alabama has kept a terrible secret: All of its exhibits are just stuffed toy animals.
Cullman, Alabama – You don’t have to live in a big city to have access to a decent zoo. Smaller communities all over the country, from Vienna, Virginia to Big Bear Lake, California, with stops in Independence, Kansas and Bartlesville, Oklahoma along the way, have been maintaining their own zoos and wildlife exhibits for decades. People come from miles around to visit these local zoos, to see the animals and learn a bit more about the world around them. From tigers to pythons, from bison to anteaters, these breadbasket zoos help keep smaller town across the United States vital and alive.
But one such zoo, Plush Acres Petting Zoo in Cullman, Alabama, has been fooling locals and visitors alike for nearly twenty years.
“It started out as a joke,” said George Wilson, who co-owns the petting zoo with his ex-wife. “We didn’t mean no harm by it, I swear.”
They may not have meant any harm, but in the twenty years since the Wilsons opened Plush Acres, thousands of visitors from north central Alabama have been duped into thinking they were petting real wild animals. The reality? All of the critters, big or small, at Plush Acres are stuffed toy animals, the kind you might buy at a Toys ‘R’ Us or Walmart, the type you might win from a claw machine.
“When folks couldn’t tell the difference,” said Patrice Philips, Wilson’s ex, “George figured he’d see how long we could keep it goin’. I warned him it’d go all wrong, but fool that he is, he just kept things growin’.”
And boy did they grow. Wilson started the petting zoo with half a dozen animals – a lion, a tiger, an elephant, a mouse, a snake, and a dolphin – each in its own cage. George made it pretty obvious he was teasing his visitors. After all, the mouse was a Mickey and the dolphin was not kept it water. But so many people believed he had real animals who were simply docile enough to pet, he decided to keep it going.
“Over the years, I bought me a bigger tiger – one of them white Siberian types – some monkeys, a bear, and a whole bunch more,” George claimed. “Best of all was this pink unicorn big enough for a little girl to sit on. They just ate that stuff up!”
Eventually, George began to charge admission, taking in ten dollars for adults and five for children between the ages of three and twelve. For the last half dozen years, he’s made the majority of his income from the Plush Acres Petting Zoo. But all that nearly came to an end when a young boy from Oregon who was visiting his grandmother noticed the tag still on the ear of the white tiger.
“I knew it was fake before I saw the tag,” said nine year old Tommy Rollington. “I mean, I’ve seen real tigers before, duh.”
Even with local and regional news catching wind of Rollington’s claims, the zoo continues to do a brisk business, thanks to the quick thinking of its proprietor.
“Those aren’t price tags,” Wilson claimed. “They’re for tracking the animals in case they get away.”
Locals seem to have accepted the explanation; so far, nobody has called him out on his deception, and he doubts they ever will.