On 14 June 2015, a number of Florida news outlets published a seemingly remarkable photograph, sent to them by a man named Richard Jones, showing a raccoon riding the back of an alligator like a surfboard:
The peculiar sight may have been endearing, but it also left many viewers questioning the image's authenticity. Photographer Richard Jones's explanation of how he snapped the image was that he was walking with his son along the Oaklawaha River in the Ocala National Forest when they came across a raccoon. Their appearance startled the creature, he said, which sought the safety of the water, where it hopped onto the back of an alligator. The raccoon was only "riding" the alligator for a short while, Jones said, as the gator quickly slipped underwater and the raccoon scurried back onto land:
Had a wonderful morning with the family in Ocala National forest and took an equally wonderful photo! We were walking along the Oaklawaha river watching some gators warm up in the morning. My son went through some palm fronds to catch a different angle and frightened a raccoon. It must have been asleep because it stumbled toward the water and hoped on top of the gator we were watching. I snapped a lucky picture right when the gator slipped into the water and before the raccoon jumped off and scurried away. Without the context you'd think the raccoon was hitching a ride across the river. Pretty amazing. Definitely the photo of a lifetime. Included a second one my wife took or the area. You have my permission to share the photo and use the photo in any way. I don't want anything in return. Just thought other people might enjoy it.
However, not everyone took the photograph at face value. The Florida Times-Union published it but included a disclaimer stating that they hadn't confirmed its authenticity:
The photo of the gator with raccoon in tow seems to have gone viral on social media, and the story has been picked up by several other media outlets.
And although we haven't been able to confirm the authenticity of these images, this was too good of a story to leave our viewers out of the loop.
DISCLAIMER: Mr. Jones did not leave a phone number in his email so that we could confirm the authenticity of the image. We did try to contact him via his email address and we also requested he phone us. At the time this story was posted, we still have not received a call or email from Mr. Jones.
The Ocala Star Banner was more skeptical, opting not to publish the photograph due to questions about its authenticity and a lack of response from the submitter:
Until now, the Star-Banner has declined to publish the photo because we still have questions about its authenticity. We have reached out to the photographer, a man named Rich Jones, but [have] not heard back from him.
Here’s a summary of our concerns:
+Scope: The raccoon seems out of proportion -- too big -- compared with the alligator.
+Feet: Even zooming in, you can’t tell whether the raccoon has feet.
+Tail: Don’t raccoons usually have longer, fluffier tails?
+Posture: That is an unusual pose for a raccoon. It almost looks like a taxidermy piece.
+Gator: The alligator’s eye has an odd color, shape and placement. Its body seems rubber-like.
+Mask: The raccoon’s mask seems like an add-on.
When a photographer in London captured a somewhat comparable image of an animal "riding" another animal in February 2015 — a rather amazing picture of a weasel hitchhiking on the back of a woodpecker in flight — a small army of photoshop experts also declared that picture to be fake for similar reasons. But in that case the photographer made himself available for interviews, and the consensus remains that that photograph was real.
While Jones didn't come forward with more information about the image, a performance artist who goes by the name "Zardulu" did. In December 2016, Zardulu told the Washington Post that she was responsible for a number of social media hoaxes, including this photograph of the raccoon riding an alligator:
In 2015, there was an incredible viral photograph, a “lucky” shot, that showed a raccoon perched on the back of a swimming alligator. A man named Richard Jones told the local news that he’d snapped the picture himself, and a lot of Florida news outlets ran with it. The story spread to larger publications. It went viral.
There were plenty of doubters, of course. But also many believers, people who would prefer to live in a world where a raccoon could use a predator as a ferry. And that preference is exactly what Zardulu understands so well.
“I staged the raccoon and the alligator,” Zardulu said. The animals are taxidermied; she sprayed each with a commercial product used to waterproof leather to protect them from the water. Zardulu showed us photographs of the setup, and some of herself, in costume, clutching the animals: