77-year-old roadside animal attraction closes

BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. - One of the last Old Florida-style roadside animal attractions in the state has closed its doors to the public.

Wonder Gardens in Bonita Springs closed for good on Sunday.

Lester Piper started the park in 1936 with panther cubs, alligators and snakes. Later, when the menagerie was owned by Piper's grandson David Piper, it claimed to have the largest crocodile in captivity in the world - Big Joe was more than 1,200 pounds.

But David Piper was diagnosed with an inoperable tumor and decided to close the park and sell the land and all of the animals.

"Really mixed emotions," Piper told the Fort Myers News-Press. "There's an old song that said 'Cowboys ain't supposed to cry.'"

Sunday's visitors were estimated to be near the record 965 guests the attraction drew on a single day in 2004. More than 800 visited Saturday.

Former employee John O'Kelly stopped by to say goodbye to his favorite parrot, Peanut, and the gators and bobcats he fed for nearly three decades.

"This place is lost in time," O'Kelly said. "There aren't too many places you can go that still look like they did 100 years ago."

On Monday, Piper said that he will call zoos and collectors interested in his animals and artifacts.

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