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Bonita Springs attraction showcases plants and animals

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The Flamingo Pond at the Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. TIM GIBBONS / FLORIDA WEEKLY

The Flamingo Pond at the Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs. TIM GIBBONS / FLORIDA WEEKLY

The Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs is looking great at age 85.

Started in 1936 by the Piper family as a roadside attraction along the then newly built Tamiami Trail, the three-acre property is filled with botanical specimens as well as birds and reptiles that add even more pops of color to the site.

Starting with the historic wooden entry building, the first impression is of Old Florida.

It’s a theme that President and CEO David Rahahe:tih Webb — an eighth-generation Floridian and a Tuscarora/Meherrin Nation citizen with both of his parents — embraces. Next month he will mark his one-year anniversary with the Wonder Gardens, now run by a nonprofit organization, but he grew up in the area. In high school, he worked for a veterinary clinic that cared for the Wonder Gardens’ animals. When he took his new position last fall, he knew he wanted to elevate many aspects of the place, drawing on his work experience at attractions such as Naples Botanical Garden and the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.

WEBB

WEBB

His first project was to transform the courtyard immediately behind the entrance building into something similar to the old Parrot Jungle in Miami by adding lots of colorful birds under umbrellas to greet people.

“I wanted to get people excited right away with that Old Florida kitschiness,” Mr. Webb says, “and there’s nothing better for that than parrots.”

He also made improving animal care a priority. Seven exhibits were overhauled or built during the past year, including the Grand Aviary that is now lushly landscaped and the Small Bird Aviary. The projects were funded by donations from supporters and feature rust-proof aluminum and stainless steel as well as any original materials that were still usable.

Staff focuses on animal enrichment, making sure the animals feel entertained and have ways to mimic natural behaviors. This includes working out puzzles or climbing to find their food, digging if that is something they would do in the wild, and shredding bird toys.

The animals are also eating better, getting commercial diets designated for their species. Visitors can purchase animal food from the gift shop, with a certain amount allotted each day for alligators, peafowl, ducks, koi and turtles. Guests can also pay for a Lorikeet Encounter, held twice daily, and hand-feed nectar to these Australian birds.

There are more than 300 animals at the Wonder Gardens, and all of them are rescued, rehabilitated or non-releasable.

The flamingos are one of the biggest attractions, and Mr. Webb is working to expand the elderly flock with younger birds of breeding age.

He also replaced the very large alligators with a more manageable group of youngsters and juveniles. He’s adding a filter marsh pond next to the main gator pond that will help clean the water and teach visitors about these ecosystems.

Other species around the gardens include Russian tortoises, finches, cockatiels, lovebirds, bronze turkeys, bourbon red turkeys, Pekin ducks, golden weavers, pythons and Chinese golden pheasants.

Recently, the gardens added an eclectus parrot, military macaw, turaco and Catalina macaw.

Be sure to say hello to Casey, an umbrella cockatoo, or he’ll pout (and squawk!).

One of the most anticipated changes is the return of otters later this year. The exhibit will feature a clear acrylic tunnel and wheelchair accessible play-cave for children to explore while otters play and swim around them.

Otters are among the most popular exhibits at zoos and aquariums, Mr. Webb says. “This will be a state-of-the-art exhibit unlike anything else in Southwest Florida,” he adds. “A place like the Wonder Gardens should try to have an exciting new attraction every three years. We may get a lot of people who haven’t come in a while.”

Another huge draw is the incredible variety of trees at the Wonder Gardens.

The centerpiece of the property is a banyan tree that is about 40 feet tall and 100 feet wide, likely planted in the 1930s. Staghorn ferns hang from many trees, there are about a dozen varieties of palms, a very large African tulip tree, a council tree, and a collection of bonsai donated a couple of years ago.

The animals benefit from the many fruit trees, including pineapple, star fruit, mangoes, bananas and jackfruit.

Mr. Webb particularly likes the several types of bamboo around the gardens. He shares that legend says the original stock can be traced to the Koreshans, who lived in the area around the turn of the 20th century, or Thomas Edison, who was known for sharing saplings of trees he grew on his estate in Fort Myers.

With such a variety of animals and plants, there are very interesting volunteer opportunities. Mr. Webb says volunteers help with animal diet prep and exhibit cleaning, the trimming and moving of plants, and office functions. As he expands the education programs, which included a summer camp this year, he expects to start a docent program.

The Wonder Gardens is a popular spot just about every weekend for weddings, birthday parties and other facility rentals. It is also in demand for photo shoots by the large banyan tree or flamingo pond.

The attraction had a record-setting 80,000 visitors the past year, which Mr. Webb attributes to people wanting to be outside during the pandemic. As the Wonder Gardens winds down its 85th year, all of these new exhibits and changes just may help it reach 85,000 in a nod to its anniversary. ¦

In the KNOW

Wonder Gardens

Where: 27180 Old 41 Road, Bonita Springs

Hours: Through Sept. 18, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. daily; starting Sept. 19, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

Admission: Ages 13-64, $12; ages 65 and older, $10; ages 3-12, $7; children under 3, free

Info: 239-992-2591 or www.wondergardens.org

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