Ask anyone visiting a zoo what their favorite part is, and they’ll probably reply with a certain animal.
It might be the personable penguins, the majestic lions or the mischievous monkeys, but generally the answer will be something alive.
Ask that same question at one particular zoo in Alabama, and visitors will probably reply with an animal – but not a living, breathing one.
Don’t worry, this isn’t as morbid as it sounds.
Rather than real animals, Alabama Rock Zoo is filled with – you guessed it – rocks.
But these aren’t just any old rocks; they’re rocks that have been painted with various levels of success to resemble a whole host of wild animals.
Take a stroll around Alabama Rock Zoo and you’ll come across a bear, a rooster, a giraffe and an elephant, to name a few.
There are around 40 ‘animals’ in total in the park, each one more hilarious than the last.
Tammy Murphey, a keeper at the Rock Zoo and the granddaughter of its founder, Leonard Dawson, told UNILAD that Leonard planned on getting a professional to paint the rocks when the zoo first came about, but he couldn’t find an artist to go along with his idea.
Keen to make the zoo come to life, he decided to paint them himself.
Tammy explained: “My grandfather started the rock zoo in the 1970s, after a couple of boulders were moved onto his property when county road 32 was being built.
“He saw the first boulder and thought it looked like a bull… As my dad Larry was digging the foundation for an addition to their home, he dug up what looked to be a horn for the bull.
“Leonard and Larry then walked the mountain and found another [‘horn’], which they cemented on to the bull. Next to the bull was another rock formation that looked like a rooster… that was the beginning of it all.”
Larry took over as head zookeeper when Leonard passed away in 2003, and when Tammy lost her dad to ALS earlier this year, it was her turn to take charge.
The most recent addition to the zoo was a turtle, painted by Tammy’s husband, John, though her favorites are the park’s big red bull and the elephant.
As keeper, Tammy is tasked with mowing the land around the zoo and repainting the animals every few years to make sure they’re recognizable to the hundreds of guests that visit the zoo, as well as the thousands of people enjoying the animals online.
“There are between 150 and 250 households per month that ask for directions to the Rock Zoo. It’s viewed online over 50,000 times each month,” Tammy said.
Thankfully, no one has turned up at the zoo expecting real animals – at least not yet – though Leonard still made sure people didn’t get too close by painting a rock which tells guests: “Please don’t feed the animals.”
Tammy is hopeful the zoo will keep growing over the years, with a portion of the money made from its shirts and souvenirs donated to the ALS Association in honor of her dad, while the rest goes towards the maintenance of the zoo.
While many might consider the zoo a quick, delightful roadside attraction, for Tammy, the zoo holds ‘a lot of memories’.
“When I was a little girl, I would help my grandfather re-paint them,” she recalled.
“I’d watch him sit on his front porch and wave at the visitors that passed by and then I saw my dad as he would enjoy talking to people about the history and how it came to be.
“The Rock Zoo is just part of who we are since it’s been there for so long,” Tammy continued.
“I love that people come from all over and some even add a rock of their own that they have painted. I hope the Rock Zoo will carry on for many generations.”