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A Visit To Sarasota Jungle Gardens

Jul 5, 2016

One of the oldest continuously operated attractions in Florida is an 11-acre oasis just minutes away from a busy strip mall.

At Sarasota Jungle Gardens, visitors can feed flamingos, stroll under a canopy of lush foliage and even see the occasional unicycle-riding cockatoo.

On a recent summer day, dozens of people filed into a small amphitheater where various macaws and parrots did their best to warm up the crowd for the daily Jungle Bird Show with a chorus of cheerful hellos. 

Animal shows are a staple at Sarasota Jungle Gardens, which opened to the public back on New Year’s Eve 1939. At the time, people came to see the exotic plants like the Australian Nut Trees, Royal Palms and Peruvian Apple Cactus.

The birds were introduced in the early 1970s and the first flock was literally a bunch of jailbirds. The garden's general manager, Chris Lavick, said the flock arrived from San Quentin prison.

“They were trained by the prisoners to do these different tricks including riding a bicycle and painting,” he said. “It was good therapy for the prisoners and the birds end up entertaining people for years after that."

And one of those original birds is something of a celebrity.

Frosty the unicycle riding cockatoo was once a frequent guest on the Ed Sullivan Show. The now 80-year-old bird is still pedaling his unicycle and is also pretty adept on the scooter.

The gardens are also home to Mac, a cobalt blue macaw whose eyes are rimmed in a very complimentary shade of corn yellow. And then there's Fortune, a small African Grey parrot. Zookeeper Ricardo Carelli swears she's typically very chatty. Mostly she brags, her favorite sentence is “I'm a pretty bird.” And she’s also apparently quite the joker.

"Sometimes you ask her to do something that she knows how to do, for example ask her to say 'what does the dog say,' and then she'll give me a raspberry and then she'll laugh,” he said.

And these birds aren't just entertaining. They're pretty smart, too.

"It's been estimated that these guys have the intelligence of about a 3-year-old child,” he said.  “They also have the same emotional range of those kids because they sometimes have tantrums, so in order to keep these guys, you have to be prepared to have a 3-year-old child for 80 years."

Farther down a crushed shell walking path, past the butterfly garden, is perhaps Sarasota Jungle Gardens’ most iconic feature -- a flamboyance of free-roaming flamingos that Lavick said are not above cozying up to visitors offering snacks.

“They're not afraid of humans,” he said. “And that's not their normal behavior. I don't know of anywhere where you can actually just stand right next to a flamingo and these guys don't care, as long as you've got some pellets with you to feed them.”

Lavick said these kinds of animal interactions used to be a mainstay. Although you can still get close to wildlife at some of the big theme parks, those add-ons will cost you. Here, it’s just the price of an admission ticket.

"People can hold python snakes, they can hold parrots, they can pet a flamingo, and hold an alligator,” Lavick said. “They’re very unique experiences that represent the old Florida attractions and we're one of the few that do it still."

And that could be because Sarasota Jungle Gardens is a family business. It was purchased in 1971 by Arthur C. Allyn, a one-time owner of the Chicago White Sox, a team that held spring training at Payne Park in Sarasota.  His daughter, Dorothy Tinney, and her family operate the Gardens today.

They say they are committed to keeping the park's nostalgic nature.

"That's kind of gone by the wayside now and given way to attractions that have a lot of rides,” Lavick said. “But I think a lot of people miss that, that old Florida, without all the crowds. It’s just a laid back setting."

At the end of a winding trail, tucked away in a corner, visitors will encounter aldabra tortoises Roscoe and Bertha. Aldabras are among the longest-living animals on the planet. Roscoe is pushing 100 years old and that's not much older than the gardens themselves, making Sarasota Jungle Gardens an oasis of time far removed from the modern conveniences like the cell phone store and the Kwik Stop on Tamiami Trail, just a block away.

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