Fine art landscape photographer John Brady says he and his corps of nonprofit volunteers couldn't bear to see the former zoo and gardens at Everglades Wonder Gardens - a Bonita Springs downtown landmark since 1936 - purchased and developed otherwise, so they stepped in and formed the not-for-profit Bonita Wonder Gardens.
"Our direction was less zoo, more garden," Brady says.
Gators still populate Everglades Wonder Gardens. — Photo courtesy of Chelle Koster Walton
Gone are the big mammals - Florida panthers, black bears, bob cats, river otters, etc. - in small cages. So what's still there? Historic gardens under renovation, birds, reptiles (Yes, still alligators, though smaller than the former behemoths!) and some of the ghoulish specimens jarred and located in the nature museum. These were collected by original founder Lester Piper, a pioneer environmentalist and wildlife rehabilitator.
The newer and kinder attraction continues to develop new gardens, botanical signage, a gallery and even event space, as the organization raises money to buy the property it now manages in hopes that the Piper family doesn't sell it before they can do so.
When the Pipers closed the property in April 2013, they sold off most of the animals. After destroying a lot of the cages, the renovation crew found the heart of the old tropical forest - huge banyans, fragrant orchid trees, fruiting canisteel trees and peel-y gumbo limbos. You also get views of the Imperial River and Riverside Park on the river's opposite bank.
Bonita Wonder Gardens has added or is in the process of adding orchid and bromeliad gardens, fountains, an Asian-themed event lawn, a koi pond, a butterfly garden, outdoor native fish tanks, a flamingo pond and an interactive tropical bird walk-through cage filled with rescued canaries and parakeets.
Nature trails enter the forest previously hidden by caged animals. Along the orchid trail, they have added a watering system to create the effect of a rain forest.
"It's constantly changing, evolving," says Brady, who has been photographing Florida landscapes with a large-format camera for 14 years.
His artwork hangs in the gallery occupying the former welcome building, where visitors could buy alligator skulls and look at Lester Piper's collection of snakes and animal embryos embalmed in formaldehyde.
Visitors today can self-tour the 3.5-acre grounds. Brady does guided tours for groups that call ahead and wanders the grounds to inform explorers about the wood ducks, mandarin ducks, Louisiana pine snake, corn snakes, cane toads, tortoises and other animals they can see.