A Wonderful World

by Carmela Fabian

EVERGLADES WONDER GARDENS in Bonita Springs has been under new management since the summer of 2013. John Brady, an award-winning landscape photographer, has kept the doors open and is working hard to preserve this historic local attraction. Much has changed in the past 15 months. I met John recently at the renewed attraction to discuss its renowned past, exciting present and promising future.

What is the history of the Everglades Wonder Gardens?

John: Brothers Bill and Lester Piper left Detroit and opened the Bonita Springs Reptile Gardens in 1936. Over the years they exhibited a large collection of mammals, including bears and deer, but were best known for their many crocodiles, at one time having the largest crocodile in captivity, Big Joe. They were also among the pioneers breeding the Florida panther. The Everglades Wonder Gardens was born during Florida’s Golden Age of roadside attractions and became a very popular zoo. However, by the 1970s public sentiment regarding roadside zoos changed. People no longer wanted to see large animals in small exhibits with chain link fences. The place had run its course in that format.

How did you become the manager of the Wonder Gardens?

In the spring of 2013, the Piper family closed the Gardens. They sold the animals to other facilities and put the land up for sale, asking $3.9 million. I realized that someone needed to take over operations immediately to at least maintain the historic botanical jungle before it overran the grounds. I negotiated a lease with the Piper family and, more importantly, negotiated the support of my family, especially my two adult children, Molly and Ryan, who help me keep the place open. My wife, Maggie, has been incredibly understanding.

Were you qualified to run a botanical garden or care for animals?

When I was a boy I collected every snake I could find. Little did I know that all these years later I would have so many reptiles! And I’ve cared about and worked in the Southwest Florida environment as a landscape photographer for 15 years. I have a natural affinity for wildlife and a great interest in plants. In addition to discovering my ability to easily connect with the animals we now have on exhibit, I’ve discovered my green thumb. It’s also helped greatly that Jack Wolman, who worked at the Gardens for the Pipers, came back as our employee.

What changes have you made at the Wonder Gardens?

The heart of the 31/2 acre Gardens is the old growth plants, including African mahogany, kapok and more than a dozen varieties of palms. A wonderful team of horticulture volunteers led by Dr. Jan Abernathy, a former college professor who has worked with both the Naples Zoo and Naples Botanical Garden, stepped right up to help save these plants and expand the collection. We removed exotic species, cleared vines away from our marquee banyan tree, created a relaxing bromeliad garden with hundreds of donated plants, established an orchid trail with dozens of plants hanging from a Cuban mahoe tree, and placed five very large staghorn ferns around the property.

We also brought animals back, after removing as much of the chain link fence as we could and updating the exhibit spaces. We now have birds and reptiles rescued through Florida Fish & Wildlife and others loaned to us by Keri Lohrman of Bird Gardens of Naples. She is known as the Bird Lady of Naples. We created a butterfly house out of the old panther exhibit, have a rare Louisiana pine snake, a rescued Sulcata tortoise that a hang glider over Bonita spotted, and dozens of parrots, ducks, turtles, tortoises and more. We’re working to get a rescued eagle and other animals to enhance our offerings.

And we proudly showcase the only flamingos in Southwest Florida. They are colorful, fun and quite a draw along with our 40 gators.

We converted the deer yard into an event lawn and hosted a wedding earlier this year. Several organizations have rented the Gardens to host their fundraisers. We’re also scheduling special events and activities such as yoga classes to attract visitors.

How is all of this saving the Everglades Wonder Gardens?

Keeping the doors open, adding new plants and animals, engaging volunteers and bringing in visitors is just part of the plan to make sure people know and care about the Wonder Gardens. We also established a non-profit organization — the Bonita Wonder Gardens — and currently accept donations through a fund in our name at the Southwest Florida Community Foundation. Through the work of our Board of Directors and other interested parties, we are hoping to raise the funds to purchase the land from the Pipers, so this incredible community resource with historic plants not found elsewhere in Southwest Florida doesn’t become commercially developed.

How can people help?

We invite folks to visit us. We’re open daily from 9am-5pm to see the place for themselves. If you visited before June of 2013, you won’t believe the transformation. We would love to have more volunteers, especially folks who have experience with gardening or caring for animals. Even if you don’t, it’s easy to follow the lead of our staff. Just about anybody can chop fruits and vegetables for the animals or rake leaves off our paths. If people want to help preserve the historic Wonder Gardens, we welcome donations and every contribution is greatly appreciated. Many people still think we’re closed, but we’re on our way.

Do you still find time to work as a photographer?

I take two days off each week, and you will often find me in a swamp somewhere. My favorite places are the Ten Thousand Islands, the Big Cypress National Preserve and the many small creeks in our area. I also moved my art gallery to the front entrance of the Wonder Gardens, so I’ve been able to blend both passions. And now having access to these beautiful plants and animals, I’ve developed an interest in close-up shots versus landscape. My portfolio is expanding.

Everglades Wonder Gardens is located at 27180 Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs, just north of Bonita Beach Road and south of West Terry. For more information, call 239-992-2591. Learn more at evergladeswondergardens.com or on Facebook at TheEvergladesWonderGardens. •

September-October 2014

John Brady photographed
by Kevin Barrier

photographs by John Brady

A team of horticulture
volunteers led by
Dr. Jan Abernathy,
who has worked with
both the Naples Zoo and
Naples Botanical Garden,
stepped up to help save
the plants and expand
the collection