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Last-of-its-breed Florida wildlife park on endangered list

BONITA SPRINGS — On a stretch of U.S. 41 along the Imperial River is a time machine that requires neither a hot tub nor a DeLorean.

Everyone who pays $15 to step into Everglades Wonder Gardens is transported back to pre-Disney Florida, when two-lane highways were dotted with attractions like the Aquatarium and the Cypress Knee Museum.

Most of those places were bulldozed long ago, but not 75-year-old Everglades Wonder Gardens — not yet, anyway. A winding walk along its tree-shaded concrete path takes visitors past exhibits built of lumber and chicken wire containing alligators galore, snarling crocodiles, lolling black bears, dignified flamingos — even a Florida panther.

But soon they too could be gone. Owner David Piper Jr., 47, recently announced that he's ready to sell the attraction his family has owned since the 1930s. He has even listed the 3.5-acre place with a Realtor.

Piper said he has to sell because he's got an inoperable tumor on his spine causing him tremendous pain as well as circulatory and neurological problems.

"Unless a miracle takes place," he said, "I'm not going to be around until I'm 80 or 90 like my grandfather."

His wife, Dawn, has taken over the day-to-day business. His children, Piper said, aren't interested in stepping in because "the modern generation doesn't have the sacrificial attitude."

Initially he hoped to sell the business — lock, stock and crocs — to Florida Gulf Coast University, but that fell through. He's also talked with the Trust for Public Land and city officials, but so far that hasn't borne fruit. Now he's looking further afield.

There's been talk of building apartments or a condominium on the site. If that happened, "it would be a travesty," said Charlie Strader, a former president of the Bonita Springs Historical Society.

Nevertheless, the land is zoned commercial, so "it's up to the buyer what it becomes," said Piper's agent, Cullum Hasty. "I could see a beautiful restaurant with indoor and outdoor seating."

That's a far cry from what the founders had in mind. Lester and Wilford "Bill" Piper were "like mountain men without the mountains," Strader said. The brothers had been successful bootleggers in Detroit, but made enough enemies to persuade them to move south.

They invested in Florida land, according to Charles LeBuff, a onetime Wonder Gardens guide who documented its history in a book, Everglades Wildlife Barons. They built a shack by the river in Bonita Springs when it was only a wide spot in the road.

Bill Piper enjoyed collecting reptiles, so he and his brother opened a makeshift zoo in 1936 on the Tamiami Trail, the main thoroughfare between Miami and Tampa. For Tampa-bound tourists who had just driven across the Everglades, a stop in Bonita Springs offered a chance to grab a bite to eat and visit the Pipers' attraction.

Their top star then was Big Joe, billed as the largest North American crocodile ever found. Netted by a Key Largo fisherman, Joe in his prime measured 15 feet long and weighed about 1,200 pounds.

By the 1940s they had captured a few Florida panthers, and soon were breeding. At least twice in the 1950s and 1960s, Everglades National Park officials worried they didn't have enough panthers. At their request, the Pipers turned some of the captive-bred cats loose there to replenish the wild supply.

Hollywood steered more customers their way after their bear, Tom, played the role of the wily Old Slewfoot in the Gregory Peck movie The Yearling. They ran national ads that helped put Bonita Springs on the map, David Piper said.

But Bill Piper began spending more time tending to his cattle ranch, leaving short-tempered Lester in charge. His way was the only way, said LeBuff, who worked there in the early '50s.

"The day I quit," LeBuff said, "I thought sure I was going in the crocodile pit."

Still, it was a magical place for a boy to grow up, David Piper said. "My grandfather taught every child how to handle each kind of animal," he said, recalling how he bottle-fed otters from the time he could walk.

But big changes were coming. In 1971, Walt Disney turned a Central Florida swamp into a Magic Kingdom. Soon a cartoon mouse trumped all of Piper's animals at pulling in tourists. Six years later, Interstate 75 opened a link that steered most of the traffic away from U.S. 41.

The stars died off, even Big Joe. He's now stuffed and on display in a glass case like Lenin.

In 1986, the Humane Society of the United States blasted Everglades Wonder Gardens as a "freak show," rating it among the worst captive-wildlife attractions in the nation.

Still, the place hung on. Lester Piper's son took over, then his grandson. David Piper estimated about 50,000 people still visit each year.

The gardens' antiquity is the key to its charm. Modern zoos keep the animals at a distance. Everglades Wonder Gardens still lets visitors get within 3 feet of its bears. School groups walk through, ooohing and aahhing when they aren't squealing.

Four years ago, at the height of Florida's real estate bubble, Piper turned down an offer of $8.5 million, saying he wouldn't sell his family's legacy. That was before his diagnosis. Back then, Lee County valued the land at $1.8 million, but now it's dropped to $1.3 million.

If he sells to someone who wants to shutter the attraction, he has already figured out where the animals will go. They'll be cared for, he said. But the future of the land remains a mystery.

One possibility, something Strader has been working on, involves the other part of the Piper legacy. During the Depression, the Piper brothers planted fruit trees all over their land. The trees are still there, sprouting everything from figs to starfruit.

Strader wants the community to raise money to convert the Wonder Gardens into a botanic garden — a place of peace and tranquility amid the city's pizza joints and laundromats.

That could work, said Hasty, the real estate agent. "I'm hopeful we can wind up preserving some of the beauty of it," he said. "I would love to see the flamingos remain there."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Last-of-its-breed Florida wildlife park on endangered list 12/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 18, 2010 10:50pm]
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