The smell of sulfur on a Wednesday afternoon at Sarasota’s Jungle Gardens took me back to my years as a precocious brat on school field trips. Teachers used to lead us hand-in-hand through the winding botanical paths and I’d always try to slip away into the bamboo brush. Today was the first day I had visited the gardens in the almost two decades since then. I wondered how much had changed, if the reality would measure up to my childhood’s exaggerated memories—and if my ripened conscience might find viewing caged animals unpleasant.
Jungle Gardens is a vestige of Old Florida, one of the state’s last remaining mom-and-pop tourist attractions. The park began as the botanical hobby of Florida newspaperman David Breed Lindsay. He bought the 10-acre plot of subtropical jungle in the early 1930s and populated the land with exotic flora with the help of nursery owner Pearson Conrad. By 1939, so many people had started wandering through the property that Lindsay and Conrad began charging admission, and Jungle Gardens was born.
When I was a child, the animals that made girls squirm appealed to me most, so I headed first to the reptile area. I walked through the alligator exhibits on my way to the snakes. One of the gators had the side of his belly up against the chain link fence and was sitting still with his mouth open. All of the alligators and crocodiles seemed indifferent to the people around them—even the bite-sized children.
Inside the musty reptile barn were lizards, scorpions and snakes—some venomous, some large, all motionless, wide-eyed and unblinking. As a young boy I would have lost my mind among so many dangerous-seeming cold-blooded animals. I used to have a pet snake named Rex. I fed him live rats and he once bit me in the face. I’ve lost that early enthusiasm; now I wondered if the animals preferred being inside or outside of their tanks.
The signs said not to tap on the glass, and I didn’t, but I wanted to. Why is there that desire in our gut to be acknowledged by these animals? Outside of the reptile barn young children were posing with snakes draped around their necks like scarves and holding baby alligators with their mouths taped shut. I saw people posting the pictures to their Instagram. Whenever I see an animal in the wild, I want to call it to me. They never come close, but Jungle Gardens provides this experience for a handful of dollars.
Of all the animals, the giant tortoises from Aldabra were the most human-like. Their wrinkled necks, bald heads and docile natures made them seem like quirky old men. A staff member said that one of the tortoises, Roscoe, was rescued from the circus. Back then, children would pay to hop on his back and ride him around. You can still see the indentation from the saddle that was strapped to his shell.
The other giant tortoise was asleep in the strangest position—her head was buried face-first in the ground. A patron concerned that it might be dead called a trainer over. The staffer told me this happens all the time. “People get upset if animals don’t do what they expect them to be doing,” she said.
I had completely forgotten about the Gardens of Christ tucked in the northwest corner of the botanical attraction. I examined each of the dioramas depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ. There was a dedication dated March 2, 1975. Scratchy recordings played on a loop, detailing the story and its Biblical references. At 8 years of age, I thought that it was a story about pirates. Now it exists as wonderful kitsch I’d recommend to all my friends.
Gone were most of the primates I recalled from my childhood. The black panther that once prowled behind iron bars is, I presume, long dead. The elephant-shaped playground and slide have been replaced by more modern (safer and less fun) obstacles that will not support my large frame. The careless wonder I experienced as a child has also been replaced. Now I feel the adult weight of guilt for putting animals on display for my personal entertainment.
The nature of zoos is thorny. There is something antithetical about confined lemurs and subdued predators. Jungle Gardens has a kookaburra in a cage. What’s more of a cliché than a caged bird that doesn’t sing?
I walked through the two large ponds in the middle of the gardens. Aggressive seagulls and opportunistic ibises vied for food that patrons had purchased to feed the pink flamingos. The flamingos, whose skinny legs lined up like barcodes, were unafraid of the people and eagerly ate from outstretched hands. A large man wearing head-to-toe hunting camouflage giggled when their crooked beaks pecked at his palms. Perhaps here was the value of confined animals: engendered empathy. Rather than shooting the birds, the man was bonding with them with his wife and kids. I remembered that I chose to become a vegetarian at the age of 7—was it a coincidence that this was also the time that I frequented Jungle Gardens?
Before exiting the gardens, I stopped by the bird exhibit. Dozens of macaws and cockatoos the colors of crayon boxes roosted on individual pilings. I watched as they used their beaks as a cane to walk them across their perch. One of the birds kept saying “Hello” in a cloying manner. I said “Hello” in return, but more politely. An animal trainer told me that Frosty, a feisty white cockatoo, was 80 years old and is “as sharp as ever and will probably outlive us all.” I looked at Frosty and it hit me: This was the same cockatoo I’d seen on those field trips all those years ago!
I was flooded with wonder and a sense of coming home. Right here, I realized, in the midst of this rapidly developing beach town, a part of old Sarasota remains unchanged and, yes, still magical. These 10 acres sit in a neighborhood that developers salivate over, but Jungle Gardens still holds out. It may take me another 20 years to return, but I hope this bird and this place live forever.