Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Saving animals is legacy of Oldsmar Flea Market's circus veteran


Even by the standards of the Oldsmar Flea Market, Manly "Sonny" Harris' collection of old circus memorabilia was considered eclectic.

His booths at the market were stuffed with old clowns, wooden mannequins, carousel horses, pocket watches, gilded mirrors, chimpanzees playing the piano and a 5,000-piece model of a circus — items he had gathered during decades as an animal trainer and carny.

Sonny was also known as an animal lover at the market, where he lived in a trailer behind his flea market space. One of his regular visitors was Gini Valbuena, 66, of Clearwater, who met Sonny while strolling the market with a baby chimpanzee she was raising for a private zoo.

"The little chimp did not like men, but this one crawled out of the stroller and jumped into Sonny's lap," Valbuena said. "It crawled up and hugged his neck."

That hug started a 25-year friendship, which would end with Valbuena at Sonny's bedside at Hospice House Brookside, where he died in November. He was 87.

Now, Valbuena is in charge of an effort at the flea market to memorialize Sonny.

"I kept thinking I wanted to do something that would live on there, so people wouldn't forget who he was and how much he loved animals," Valbuena said.

Several weeks ago she approached Babe Wright, the flea market's manager, about starting an animal rescue and adoption booth at Sonny's former spot in the market.

Valbuena rifled off euthanasia statistics to Wright and explained that with so many people visiting the flea market, many animals could be saved in Sonny's name.

Wright's relationship with Sonny ran deep. Until a few years ago, Sonny rose at 4 a.m. daily and unlocked scores of gates that secure the flea market. In return, Wright didn't charge him rent. It was the same agreement they struck 30 years ago.

Sonny also looked after some Dobermans that Wright brought in to guard the property.

"Of course, he made pets out of them, so I couldn't have them as guard dogs anymore," Wright said.

Sonny loved animals so much that Valbuena would often take her exotic animals with her when she visited him, just to make him smile.

"One time I took two baby kangaroos over to his trailer and put them on his lap," Valbuena said. "He just sat and held them with a big smile on his face. He was just as excited over a hairless kitten as he was over a kangaroo or a chimpanzee."

After getting Wright's blessing for her memorial idea, Valbuena started organizing the animal rescue booth. Area nonprofit animal rescue organizations will occupy the space on weekends when they have animals ready for adoption.

A sign declaring SONNY'S MEMORY ANIMAL RESCUE ADOPTION now hangs at the space. A countertop was installed to give workers a surface on which to write adoption papers. Animal crates, disinfectants, towels and a donation jar were set up on donated tables and Sonny's booth was open for business.

"They started calling, and I started booking," Valbuena said.

The first rescue group to occupy the booth was Ruff Rescue of Brooksville. By the end of the first day, two puppies that had been scheduled to be euthanized the following day had been adopted.

Valbuena is accepting only registered nonprofits, and will work only with rescue groups that have animals which have been spayed or neutered, tested and have current shots. An adoption fee is collected to cover the expenses.

"Sonny was like my dad, and my animals really loved him," Valbuena said. "If there is anything we could have done in Sonny's memory, this is what he would have wanted — saving animals."

On Saturday Debi Klein of St. Petersburg occupied Sonny's booth, representing Siberian Husky Rescue of Florida.

Klein brought Lexi, a 2-year-old rescued husky she adopted. Three other huskies that were in need of homes spent the day tethered to volunteers.

"This gets us out into the public," Klein said. "It is a place where we can educate people about the breed, and with the diverse cross section of people at the flea market, it is different than your normal community event."

Janet Evans, one of Klein's volunteers, said the booth at the market creates a unique opportunity to expose the concept of animal adoption to those who may otherwise never consider it.

"There are a lot of people here who may not necessarily be looking to adopt a dog, but seeing them may awaken some feeling, some emotion within them," Evans said. "It is something they may not expect — to come to a flea market and fall in love with a dog."

Douglas R. Clifford can be reached at (727) 445-4177 or [email protected]

. Fast facts

To learn more

For information about reserving space at Sonny's adoption booth, contact Gini Valbuena at (727) 729-2207 or go to [email protected]

Saving animals is legacy of Oldsmar Flea Market's circus veteran 02/21/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 21, 2012 8:01pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Astros rout Yankees to force Game 7 of AL Championship Series


    HOUSTON — Justin Verlander pitched seven shutout innings to outduel Luis Severino for the second time, and the Astros bats came alive in their return home as Houston routed the Yankees 7-1 Friday night and forced a decisive Game 7 in the American League Championship Series.

    The Astros’ Brian McCann, who has struggled during the ALCS, breaks a scoreless tie with an RBI double during the fifth inning off Yankees starter Luis Severino.
  2. Review: Faith Hill and Tim McGraw shower love, star power on Tampa's Amalie Arena


    Near the end of their potent new duet Break First, Tim McGraw stopped singing, and let Faith Hill's powerhouse voice take over.

    Faith Hill and Tim McGraw performed at Amalie Arena in Tampa on Oct. 20, 2017.
  3. Senate to take up AUMF debate as Trump defends reaction to Niger attack


    WASHINGTON — The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is taking up a long-awaited debate about authorizing military force against the Islamic State as President Trump comes under unprecedented public scrutiny for his treatment of dead soldiers' families, following an ambush on troops helping to fight Islamic …

  4. In fear and vigilance, a Tampa neighborhood holds its breath


    TAMPA — There was a time, not long ago, when Wayne Capaz would go for a stroll at night and Christina Rodriguez would shop whenever she wanted. Michael Fuller would go to his night job as a line cook, not too worried about his wife at home.

    More than 50 people gathered and walked in the Southeast Seminole Heights community Friday to pay respects to the victims of three shootings. The crowd took a moment of silence at the corner of 11th Street and East New Orleans where Monica Hoffa was found dead. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  5. Fennelly: What's not to like about Lightning's start?

    Lightning Strikes

    BRANDON — No one is engraving the Stanley Cup. No one has begun stuffing the league MVP ballot box for Nikita Kucherov.

    The Lightning, with a win tonight, would match the best start in franchise history, 7-1-1 in the 2003-04 Cup season.