Try to imagine, if at the height of 2003's Monkey Pox-transmitted-via-prairie-dog scare, you made your living as the owner of a tourist attraction namedPrairie Dog Town.
Larry Farmer was nonplussed. Amid the media-stoked panic, Larry and his pockmarked attraction avoided the worst of the contagion (he had no infected animals, though it cut into his prairie dog sales). Years after the pox, interstate travelers still can't resist a peek at Prairie Dog Town's 6-legged steer and other farmland mutants.
PDT's flag-topped red billboards are recurring beacons on west Kansas highways. They promise: "Pet the Baby Pig," "Live Rattlesnakes," "See The Largest Prairie Dog In The World,” "Live 5-Legged Cow,” "See the Live 6-Legged Steer," "Russian Wild Boar," "8,000 lb. Prairie Dog," and "Roscoe The Miniature Donkey."
We've visited on prior journeys, and today we're astonished by the row of cars in the parking lot early on a summer Sunday morning. Open ten minutes and already busy? The cars turn out to be ringers. We are the only visitors until a pair of college age women show up and consider the admission price. They glance at the stuffed heads mounted on the walls, the counter jammed with jokey souvenirs (Monica cigars -- still sold here!), and sniff the air -- detecting a dainty rattlesnake smell.
"It's something you’ll never see anywhere else," Larry points out from his perch behind the cash register. The girls look at the man's honest face, then look at us, and we nod like synchronized ringers. They dig out the cash and enter.
Larry likes to keep admission equivalent to about three gallons of gas (2003 prices). "If it's too expensive, then put it in your car and get the hell out of Kansas."
The gift shop is dense with novelty items, from lacquered wall clocks of John Wayne and Dale Earnhart Sr., to jackalopes, prairie dog memorabilia, and rattlesnake t-shirts. Larry boasts that TV personality Al Roker bought an XXXL souvenir t-shirt (before his stomach was stapled).
The rattlesnake pit comes to life when our host waves an electric light bulb inside the chicken wire lid. The dozens of snakes sound like frying bacon.
Pushing through the back door, we find ourselves in the familiar parched landscape of Prairie Dog Town. Doggie chuck holes are ready to mangle the careless ankle, and prairie dogs stand everywhere, even in the pens with the freak cows.
There's a pond for ducks, and a bird aviary. We spot Roscoe the Miniature Donkey, the tiny pigs, and other petting zoo fare. A woman feeding them and filling water troughs turns out to be Larry's wife. She waves off our cameras while she's in her work gear: "I have a little pride!"
The attraction started over 30 years ago as a way to pay for feeding the animals at the Farmer family gas station. The balance of gas, gifts, and gawking has kept Prairie Dog Town in business. Larry thinks drive-thru zoos fail "because the animals breed and you end up having to feed them all." He's tried various embellishments to his basic theme over the years. He bought a Twistee Treat store, in the shape of a softee ice cream cone, that sits closed in front of PDT. It was a family project, where his kids could work when they were younger. Now he's aiming to sell the big cone...
The World's Largest Prairie Dog and the 5- and 6-legged steers are near the back of the PDT lot. One steer languishes in the dirt, while the other looks at us accusingly.
When these stars pass on, Larry will probably replace them with spanking new freaks. He's heading over to a Colorado farm to investigate a candidate born in June.
Even after death, PDT alums continue their celebrity status. Ripley's Believe It or Not! bought his first monstrosity when it died for $1,000, stuffed it and exhibited it in the museum in St. Augustine. The second one headed to a Ripley's in California. "They can’t wait for the next one to die," Larry said -- it's earmarked for a Ripley's in Las Vegas.
Larry has crafted a formula of classic tourist trap, sideshow freak-tent, and petting zoo. We are more impressed each passing year. Elsewhere it's a formula with a typical 5 or 10 year run, before the star attractions die, animal rights activists lay siege, and the health department tallies dirty water bowl demerits.
According to Larry, animal rights people don’t give PDT much trouble because of the care he takes of his animals. Many are abandoned and rescued creatures, or unloved freaks who find companionship and a meal.
Larry is slowing down these days, with "leg problems and diabetes," and he's a little frustrated because in recent years PDT finally seems to be getting the recognition it deserves. Attendance rose after a story in the Wall Street Journal --visitors came from Europe, Romania, Italy... looking for that six-legged steer. Most are roadtripping Americans -- often return customers. According to Larry, visitors say things like: "Dad wouldn’t pay 15 years ago, but now I have my own kids, and we’re going to do it."
We ringers enthusiastically nod.
September 2010: Still in operation, still interested in retiring after finding the right buyer. We stopped in and said hi. November 2007: Larry Farmer has announced that he and his wife plan to retire, but that they will only sell Prairie Dog Town to the right person -- someone who will keep feeding Roscoe and the rattlesnakes, and who will patch the occasional bullet hole in the 17-foot tall prairie dog. Interested parties should contact Landmark Realty in Hays, Kansas.