Not Your Garden Variety Attraction…

Beloved local park battles back from COVID impact with community love.
- February 9, 2021 -

WORDS: Kara Chalmers

The COVID-19 pandemic has been disastrous for visitor and tourist attractions worldwide, and Sarasota Jungle Gardens, a beloved, Old Florida park that’s been around for more than 80 years, is no exception.

However, things are starting to look up. Jungle Gardens has returned to its pre-COVID schedule; it’s hopeful to continue a seven-day-a-week schedule. The park, which in March cut 80 percent of its staff, is now starting to hire back some positions it lost, according to Nancy Lavick, Jungle Gardens’ marketing director and also a member of the family that owns the park.

Besides recruiting new staff, Lavick said the park focuses on finalizing new exhibits and interactive experiences and investing in its employees to deliver “unmatched customer service.”

Just before COVID-19 struck, Jungle Gardens had launched a new mission statement: “to educate and inspire our community through interactive experiences with animals and nature, supported by unmatched customer service.”

As for the new exhibits, Giant Snakes of the World, a year in the making, opened in January. Visitors can now view a 13-foot Green Anaconda, a 12-foot Burmese Python, and a 19-foot Reticulated Python in habitats housed in a cave-like structure and waterfall that you walk through. Each snake has its own habitat, with plants and small pools, behind glass.

The Butterfly Aviary & Nursery Exhibit – the first such butterfly exhibit in the area – allows guests to interact with butterflies. It opened just before COVID-19 hit and thus was shuttered for months. It is back up and running, as is the native butterfly garden adjacent to the enclosure.

Jungle Gardens’ resident American Crocodile, Dominic, just got a new roommate. His female companion is sharing his habitat, which has been enlarged by 60 percent and now contains three water features instead of two.

Also new at the park: 18 extra-large, recycled plastic picnic tables throughout the park, some with umbrellas in front of the café and next to the koi pond and water fountain, as well as a mining slough activity for kids.

A Jungle by the Bay

Sarasota Jungle Gardens is exactly what it claims to be: jungle gardens. It’s a 10-acre property near Sarasota Bay, with a brick-paved path that meanders for 1.2 miles through lush, shady landscaping, by animal habitats, waterfalls and ponds, and over bridges.

It’s one of the oldest continuously operating attractions in Florida and is a restful, beautiful place for visitors of any age. It’s 90 percent outdoors, making it an attractive option during a pandemic. There’s a café, playground, gift shop, and a pavilion for animal shows.

Some 250 creatures – often abandoned, abused, surrendered or un-releasable – call the gardens home. The park’s signature offering is hand-feeding its 27 free-roaming pink flamingos in their lakefront habitat. Also housed at the park are parrots, cockatoos, macaws, and reptiles like a dwarf caiman and a black-throated monitor. There’s a coatimundi, prairie dog, iguana, ring-tailed lemurs, tortoises, crocodiles, alligators, and birds of prey. Also, peacocks freely roam the grounds.

About two years ago, the park obtained a Reeve’s muntjac (aka a barking deer because it can sound like a dog) named June, and an African crested porcupine, Quilly. While the park has always had a petting zoo – which currently houses sheep and pigs — it recently added the Tortoise Petting Zoo, which contains seven gopher tortoises and a handful of ducks. This smaller space is ideal for young children, who may be intimidated by the sheep and pigs’ size.

Jungle Gardens is a popular birthday party venue. Included are food, drinks, and two animal interactions in a shaded outdoor picnic area, plus access to the entire park for the day.

Shows and Animal Interactions

Knowledgeable animal keepers hold four educational and entertaining shows a day. They meet with guests afterward, answer questions, and offer chances to pet, hold or take photos with the animals.

The Jungle Bird Show, held at noon, features exotic birds performing different feats, such as roller-skating or bicycling. Wildlife Wonder, held at 1 p.m., might feature native Florida animals, red-tailed hawks, kookaburras, owls, skunks, and hissing cockroaches. The Reptile Encounter, held at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., features snakes, lizards, and alligators.

Jungle Gardens sets itself apart from other zoos and theme parks with its interactive animal experiences. Here, you can feed and hold baby alligators and invite exotic birds to perch on your arm. Purchase a reusable tote size “Super Feed Bag” and get food for alligators, turtles, and flamingos, plus two encounter tickets, to hold a baby alligator or bird or have a photo taken with the Aldabra giant tortoise.

Jungle Gardens is offering more and more multi-species exhibits. For example, June the Reeve’s muntjac has birds in her habitat, which makes the exhibit feel more natural and realistic. The park is also working on replacing any exhibit’s bars with zoo mesh or glass partitions.

Awe-inspiring Generosity

The COVID-19 pandemic was crippling for the park, which was forced to close on March 17. On May 1, it re-opened, but only for four days a week.

Being closed during season – a time that the park makes a substantial portion of its money – was disastrous, as the park is supported only by admission, gift shop, and café sales. It had to cancel its popular Easter event, the annual “Jungle Trails, and Bunny Tails.” Its well-known summer camp still took place, but there was a drastic reduction in the number of campers allowed.

Also notable: Jungle Gardens had sustained major damage to hundreds of its trees and path pavers when Hurricane Irma hit in September 2017. Luckily, no animals or staffers were hurt.

Since closing in March, the park has received heartwarming, overwhelming support from the community, Lavick said. She’s been awed at the generosity, from monetary donations to bird toys and food.

The Indian Beach-Sapphire Shores Association provided volunteers. As of publication, the Jungle Gardens Covid19 Operating Expense Fund on gofundme.com had raised $33,277, more than 50 percent of its goal of $60,000.

“There were donations from $5 to $1000,” Lavick said of the fundraiser. “And we knew some of the $5 ones were from kids. They wanted to help us.”

In all, there have been 450 donors. The funds are paying for animal care expenses, like food, enrichment, veterinarians, and security, utilities, and insurance. Funds are helping the attraction to recoup its losses due to the closure and the reduced number of tourists in Sarasota and Florida as a whole. The park also has a wish list on Amazon.com.

The community’s goodwill has helped raise employee morale, Lavick said, and provide hope for the future. But the park is still in need.

“COVID has been incredibly difficult,” Lavick said. “But with every hardship, we’ve learned more. We have learned the strength we have as an organization and as a place in our community.”

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