2013-04-24 / Top News

The end of a legacy at Everglades Wonder Gardens


PIPER PIPER Four days before David Piper closed down his family business, he sat in the back office at Everglades Wonder Gardens. He vacillated between memories of his grandfather and business talk, as if he couldn’t sit with either thought too long.

“This used to be Grandpa’s bedroom,” he said of the office space. “His bed was here.

His dresser was here.

He would pull out a cot for me here when I was a little boy spending the night.”

Mr. Piper has a portrait of his grandfather,

Lester Piper, tattooed on his inner right forearm. Every place he points, you see his Grandpa’s face.

Lester Piper opened the wildlife attraction with his brother Bill on Feb. 22, 1936. Closing it down 77 years later, David Piper looked like he was losing his Grandpa and his childhood all over again.

“The best way to describe it, it’s like somebody has cut your umbilical cord,” Mr. Piper said. “It’s a big, big deal.”

David Piper in the Everglades Wonder Gardens office that used to be his Grandpa’s bedroom. 
ATHENA PONUSHIS / FLORIDA WEEKLY David Piper in the Everglades Wonder Gardens office that used to be his Grandpa’s bedroom. ATHENA PONUSHIS / FLORIDA WEEKLY Everglades Wonder Gardens closed on Sunday. In its last week of operation, the park welcomed around 300 guests per day. Hat racks that used to be stocked with camouflage ball caps bearing the park’s alligator logo were near empty. A wall of yellowed newspaper clippings felt even more historic. T-shirts were on sale, two for $12.

Locals came to say goodbye and pay their respects to the wildlife refuge. They passed under the gift shop threshold marked with what now seems an ominous toned verse of Scripture: “Promise of long life and blessings to those who care for animals.”

Some visitors came to take their first tour, all came to take their final tour. Tour guides wondered where these crowds were months before. Walking their guests past enclosures of alligators, crocodiles, Florida panthers and black bears, they gave the same tour they’ve given for years, trying to find that peaceful shift where an ending turns into a new beginning.

“You don’t know a good thing ‘til it’s gone,” said Anthony Menghini, tour guide and zoo keeper. “People are finally appreciating it now that they know it’s not going to be here.”

Robbie McAllister has driven past Everglades Wonder Gardens many times, but never took the time to stop. Hearing the attraction was closing, she made it a point to visit.

“I live in Naples and I don’t do Bonita very often,” Ms. McAllister said. “I love Old Florida and I don’t think you’re ever going to find anything like this again. It even smells like Old Florida here.”

Bethany, 5, Emily, 12, and mother Collin Davis, looking at alligators. Bethany, 5, Emily, 12, and mother Collin Davis, looking at alligators. Collin Davis brought her two daughters to see the Gardens after school. “I read an article that they were closing on Sunday,” she said. “My little one had never been here before, so we came.”

Walking across the swinging bridge over the alligator pit made her 5-year-old feel brave.

Another little boy on one of the late afternoon tours asked his mom, “Why are they closing? They said they want to rescue animals. What’s gonna happen to all the animals?”

His mother assured him that all the animals were going to good homes and that some might even be going to universities where scientists and doctors will learn how to help people by taking care of the animals.

Mr. Piper says he’s still sorting out the details where all the animals will go. “I’m not sending them to just any place,” he said. “Some places have offered me money but I didn’t like the size of their enclosures. I’m not going to place these animals anywhere where they’re not properly taken care of.”

Talking about the animals, Mr. Piper conjures more memories, like the time an African lion almost ripped off his left hand. Mr. Piper and his Grandpa were rehabilitating the lion at the Gardens. The lion took a 2¾-inch chunk of Mr. Piper’s flesh.

Or the time a Florida panther bit his neck. The panther threw Mr. Piper to the ground. His Grandpa shook him off. “It was pretty bloody,” Mr. Piper said.

Or the time an eastern indigo snake bit him between the eyes. An endangered snake, the eastern indigo is nonvenomous. “But it didn’t feel good,” Mr. Piper said. “I had to loosen his mouth off of me while he was hanging from my face. I was pretty small.”

Mr. Piper stops short of the alligator stories. He says he grew up as an alligator guy and that guys like him are a dying breed. “It’s been a great life,” he said. “I’m definitely going to miss it.”

Mr. Piper says his health contributed to his decision to close his family business. He has tumors in his spinal cord. Many people have told him that they have prayed for him and he believes their prayers have helped him. “The pain is there. The tumors are there. But the tumors are not growing,” he said.

Mr. Piper has three sons. They all are invested in their own careers. Passing on the family zoo was not an option. Several buyers expressed interest. Mr. Piper said they had the passion, but they did not have the means.

“It costs a lot of money to buy animals. It costs a lot of money to feed animals. It’s not a cheap endeavor,” he said of running a zoo. “Most everybody we talked to would have had to go to the bank and borrow money. You can’t do that. If you want to get into the animal business, you have to have money.”

Mr. Piper has not decided if he will sell or lease his 3.5 acres in Bonita Springs. His Grandpa planted a plethora of trees there to produce fruit and nuts all year; having lived through the Great Depression, he always wanted his family and animals to have food aplenty. Mr. Piper says there are also natural springs on the property.

As far as the definitive reason to why he closed his family business, he said, “It’s the right time. Every good thing has to come to an end. It’s our time.”

Mr. Piper will donate many of the park’s artifacts to natural history museums. He will sell some of the memorabilia — vintage signs going for hundreds of dollars, large crocodile skulls going for thousands. No matter what the memento, everything he parts with feels attached to his Grandpa.

“I remember working with him when I was just a little guy. He cut off a broom my size so I could help him sweep the sidewalks,” Mr. Piper said. “He was really cool to me. This is really tough.”

Tour guides and zoo keepers have their own memories of helping animals heal and releasing them back into the wild, memories they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

“What I want people to remember most is the concept of what this place was,” Mr. Menghini says. “It was a rehabilitation center that educated tourists. It was helping animals and teaching people at the same time. In a zoo, a lot of animals spend their lives in captivity. The idea here was not to put animals on display, but to use the display and the education as a means to rehabilitate wildlife.” ¦

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