Everglades Wonder Gardens: Gator Pit
Bonita Springs, Florida
After this field report was written, Everglades Wonder Gardens closed as a classic-style tourist attraction -- then reopened as a botanical garden. Its current owners are gradually restoring and reintroducing this attraction's old favorites, such as the swinging bridge over the gator pond (2015) and "Big Joe" the stuffed crocodile (2016).
The "gardens" aspect of this attraction gave way long ago to the better-looking-on-a-billboard lure of exotic wildlife, creating what has become one of Florida's most durable family-owned roadside zoos.
Opened February 22, 1936, Everglades Wonder Gardens was founded by two tough brothers: Wilford ("Bill") and Lester Piper, retired bootleggers with a lot of land and free time. Known in their day as "the Mountain Men of the Everglades" (and friends of future celebrity Marlin Perkins), the two frequently got into squabbles with others who entered their orbit. Bill, for example, was nearly shot to death by a Florida wildlife officer in an argument over a hunting dog.
The brothers and their growing families lived on the north bank of the Imperial River, which they named Everglades Wonder Gardens, and survived frequent injuries from the gators, snakes, panthers, and bears that populated their attraction. (Lester was the panther guy, Bill was the bear guy.) The brothers would feed leftovers from area eateries to the animals -- and road kill as well, which possibly made them mean.
Although Bill (d. 1989) and Lester (d. 1992) have been gone for awhile, their attraction still has a rough-and-tumble edge. A sign out front cautions visitors that, "We have early 1930s animal housing which enables guests to get up close and personal to each exhibit." This means that you probably won't be able to take good photos -- the enclosures are dark -- but that you will be very, very close to some extremely dangerous critters.
Our tour guide takes great care to explain just how bad some of them are. The cottonmouth snake, for example, will chase you to bite you, and drops into boats deliberately from overhanging branches. Cottonmouths eat carrion, so not only will you be poisoned, you'll get gangrene. The eastern diamondback rattlesnake, which is next on the tour, merely liquefies your insides with its poison. According to our guide: "You want to scream from the pain but you can't and then you die."
Everglades Wonder Gardens has many alligators, and the "swing bridge" over the swamp pit offers a good view of the feeding frenzy at lunch time. A notable succession of big gators and crocs has lived here over the years: "Crusher," "Old Man," "Ironhead." The last, "Big Joe," is stuffed and on display in the Gardens' museum. The new king, "Big Joe II," was sulking at the bottom his private pool when we visited, a common problem with these big reptiles that oddly makes them easier to see after they're dead than when they're alive.
A separate pen holds another famous resident, CeeCee -- short for Crazy Crocodile. Our guide tells us that Everglades Wonder Gardens keeps the water very low in her pen. Another guide once put his hand over the fence and she leapt up and nearly bit it off. The tour group, we're told, ran for the exits.
No trip here is complete with a visit to the Everglades Wonder Gardens museum, a small, home-grown set of rooms packed with stuffed animals, arrowheads in frames, display cases full of skulls and cypress knees, and steel tools mounted on boards. A stuffed cobra and mongoose are locked in eternal battle, and several shelves hold ancient, disgusting-looking anatomical specimens in glass jars with rusted lids.
Here, too, is a last reminder of Everglades Wonder Gardens' bad animals. The Lion Attack Display is simply a watch inside of a box, but it tells the story of David T. Piper Jr (grandson of Lester), who in 1985 was giving the African lion fresh water when a camera flash caused it to attack. "The encased watch actually protected him from losing his left hand," explains an accompanying sign. Yikes, let's get outta here!