Getting old isn’t for everyone and many people have had to replace their teeth with dentures in their advanced years. It’s a regular feature in films and shows and I’m sure most of us will have elderly relatives who have scared us a few times with their sudden sneeze that turns into a game of “find the teeth”.
There have also been many famous legends about important people and their false teeth, including those of George Washington, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, who had dentures “constructed of materials including human, and probably cow and horse teeth, ivory (possibly elephant), lead-tin alloy, copper alloy (possibly brass), and silver alloy.” How then would people react to someone who had actual crocodile teeth for dentures and worked daily with some of the world’s most dangerous reptiles?
Bobby Blackburn, The Crocodile Man, was a well-known figure world-wide with his likeness present in several of the largest museums run by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! He was also featured on an episode of the 2000 “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!” TV show.
The Ripley’s in London, UK even features a fully animatronic head that greets you as you enter one of their weird and wonderful sections! You can imagine my surprise then, when I saw him staring back at me when visiting the London museum as I had grown up with the man but had not known of his popularity at all! In fact, most South Africans have no idea that they had their own home-grown Crocodile Man terrifying audiences across the globe.
Bobby gained his fame working as a guide at the Cango Crocodile Ranch and Cheetahland in Oudtshoorn, South Africa in the late 80’s. The Ranch became an international tourist hot spot due to its focus on big cat conservation before eventually growing into the Cango Wildlife Ranch which is today considered to be a world-class tourism destination and endangered species conservation facility.
Bobby was one of the primary guides in its early days and was known for his special relationship with his crocodiles where he would often enter the enclosure and proceed to give his tour to the public whilst nonchalantly moving the 4 metre, 400 kilogram Nile Crocodiles around with nothing but a cane that had a bicycle bell attached. He had trained the crocodiles to respond to his bell and would talk to them as though they were his favourite pets!
He was a hit with visitors and animals alike and his fame seemed to spread to other parts of the world without any of us at home knowing until mail started being delivered to the Ranch from fans all over the world, simply addressed to “Crocodile Dundee, South Africa”. His personality would further be enhanced by the addition of crocodile-teeth dentures made from crocodile teeth he picked up during his tours. His smile made crocodiles blush and women swoon (from terror) but he played his part magnificently.
Unfortunately, Bobby passed away in 1989 before learning of his international stardom but luckily South Africans had an opportunity, for a short while, to learn his story at a temporary Ripley’s Believe It Or Not experience at the Waterfront in Cape Town. Bobby had been given pride of place as one of the only South African exhibits present and his original cane, with bicycle bell, and crocodile teeth dentures were on display for the first time ever as only replicas are used in other, international Ripley’s exhibits.
There could not be a better place for Bobby’s legacy to have an impact as Ripley’s does an excellent job in conservation itself by preserving and maintaining amazing tales and artefacts from our society and the natural world. These exhibits allow us to reflect on what makes humans, and the natural world, unique and interesting and provides us a glimpse into what happens when you bridge that gap.