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

Lori Gartland gets a kiss from Sage, a 4-year-old Siberian husky rescued by Siberian Husky Rescue of Florida, which was using Sonny’s Memory Animal Rescue Adoption booth.
Published Feb. 22, 2012

OLDSMAR

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 dclifford@tampabay.com.

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