August 19, 2001
`WE'RE NOT DISNEY': Jeff
Shimonski, Parrot Jungle's chief
of horticulture, pollinates a sausage
tree. He's in charge of transplanting
the jungle environment.
years ago, a middle-age Austrian immigrant named Franz S. Scherr hacked
and dug Parrot Jungle out of a dense, creek-fed subtropical hammock in
out-of-the-way South Dade County. The featured attraction was the Scherr
family's pet blue-and-gold macaw, Zebra.
wife decried the idea as "a lot of foolishness,'' but Franz's brainchild
took off like one of the soon-to-be-famous attraction's free-flying parrots.
Amazed tourists who flocked to the exotic locale would ask whether the
Scherrs had painted their birds.
The lush gardens, its parrots and flamingos are today a beloved local
institution, a quaint and hardy throwback in the midst of blooming suburbia.
Parrot Jungle as we know it will be no more. Its owners are moving the
attraction, lock, stock and parrot, to barren Watson Island, an artificial
scrap heap in the middle of Biscayne Bay.
On this inhospitable
ground, they have started building a new Parrot Jungle from scratch, one
that its designers say will preserve the verdant look and intimate feel
of the original, even as it gives today's visitors more of what they demand:
more animals and birds, better shows, bigger and modern auditoriums.
to be very similar and very different at the same time,'' said Jeff Shimonski,
Parrot Jungle's longtime chief of horticulture, whose staggering task
it is to re-create the old park's florid canopy and placid trails on a
windswept island traversed by 80,000 cars a day.
and the people who run Parrot Jungle say they are keenly aware of the
perils involved in transplanting a relic whose appeal seems inseparable
from its singular setting and rustic simplicity. They pledge that plants,
birds and animals won't be displaced by replicas or razzle-dazzle technology.
new park opens in the late fall of next year, Parrot Jungle habitu's
will find much that is familiar, including winding trails and a reproduction
of Flamingo Lake, one of Florida's most famous vistas. It will even have
its own version of Parrot Jungle's well-known sausage tree. Shimonski
has been tending one for years in preparation for the move, pollinating
the African specimen by hand.
Shimonski promises, within three years a thick wall of green will envelop
the new park. Thousands of trees and plants have been grown in pots and
compost berms at Parrot Jungle, and they will be planted under and around
60 massive old oak and ficus trees that are to serve as a frame for the
new Watson Island park.
that people think of Parrot Jungle as trees, canopy, lush foliage,'' Shimonski
said. "We have no technology. We're not Disney. We do animals and plants.''
But the park's
operators also know they are up against fierce competition from Walt Disney
World and the other theme parks, which have siphoned off most of the tourist
traffic from which Parrot Jungle prospered.
And so the
new Parrot Jungle will be a grander, busier place than the old. Though
the Watson Island site is barely four acres larger than the existing park's
14 acres, the new Parrot Jungle will accommodate several ambitious new
exhibits: not just a bigger Parrot Bowl, but also a serpentarium, an Everglades
"marsh'' and a replica of a cliffside as a habitat for rare Peruvian
obvious difference will be the addition of facilities designed for parties
and corporate events, principally picnic pavilions and a vast, copper-roofed
ballroom overlooking the park - an element its owners have long argued
Parrot Jungle cannot survive without.
to expand drove its owners' decision more than six years ago to move Parrot
Jungle out of its birthplace at 11000 SW 57th Ave., now encompassed by
the affluent Village of Pinecrest. Bernard Levine, the veterinarian who
bought the park from Franz Scherr's five children in 1988, contends he
never would have contemplated the move if opposition from neighbors had
not blocked expansion plans.
was always to stay here,'' Levine said wistfully, sitting recently for
an interview in Parrot Jungle's café. Outside the plate-glass windows,
cockatoos and macaws noisily waited on perches to be fed by visitors,
as they have for decades. "It's so beautiful; the lushness of it and
the serenity of it.
have changed. We found ourselves just trying to hold our own. I know it
probably sounds harsh, but we were just destined to fail.''
the Scherr family, some of whom helped Franz Scherr run and build Parrot
Jungle, express a mixture of disenchantment and perplexity over the move.
They are convinced the park could survive where it is now, and question
the choice of Watson Island, where they worry the parrots will be exposed
to salt water, traffic noise, helicopters and ships, said Bill VanderWyden
III, Franz Scherr's oldest grandson.
not feel differently from many folks who have grown up with it. I have
heard many people express dismay about the move,'' said VanderWyden, a
dean at the University of Miami's law school, who worked at Parrot Jungle
while growing up.
Gittner, author of a lively history of Parrot Jungle, said the disappearance
of most of its contemporaries - the mom-and-pop attractions that once
dotted Florida's roadsides - attests to the economic pressures that Levine
Jungle had not really changed in 52 years when Bern Levine bought it.
Now every attraction has its own exit ramp off the interstate,'' said
Gittner, whose book is permeated with admiration for Parrot Jungle's determined
"So I don't
fault him for the move. There is a lot that will be lost, including the
historic buildings. Anything they can do to re-create all that will certainly
keep the locals happy. I think it's going to be great, but it's obviously
going to be difficult.''
If the project,
and its price tag of about $50 million, appear monumental, so do the obstacles.
Watson Island, created from fill left over from the dredging of Government
Cut, seems an unnatural place for parrots or a jungle. It is flat, its
soil is poor, and it lacks a natural source of fresh water.
and his staff exude confidence, which they attribute to meticulous planning
and the knowledge that their designs have been tested in the best of labs
- Parrot Jungle itself.
surprise park devotees to learn that the Edenic setting they cherish is
in large part the product of an ingenious design, first laid out by Scherr,
and years of intense human intervention. Scherr filled in much of the
marshy ground he found in the hammock, dug ponds - including Flamingo
Lake - and, working around towering oaks and cypress trees that had grown
there since the previous century, kept the narrow trails always twisting
to keep sightlines short and create the illusion of a far-larger place.
colossal banyan tree, for instance, reached that size because crews induced
its growth. More than a dozen people on the landscaping crew are constantly
trimming, chopping, digging and planting.
been a place in flux,'' Shimonski said. "Yes, it's a natural icon in
a world of high tech. But it's a highly manicured park. There is a formula
for creating a Parrot Jungle.''
formula could be reproduced elsewhere dawned on Levine and Shimonski after
Hurricane Andrew ripped through Parrot Jungle in 1992. Though no birds
were lost, Andrew shredded the hammock.
A black olive tree is
prepared for replanting.
years, however, Shimonski and his crew replenished the jungle. They learned
they could replant felled trees. They learned that on-site composting
can provide a rich new topsoil to promote rapid plant growth. And they
noticed that sunlight pouring in through the thinner canopy allowed a
wider and colorful variety of palms, bromeliads and heliconias to thrive
on the ground.
experience underlies the plan for Watson Island, which Shimonski describes
as an ``orchestration of planting.''
years, Parrot Jungle crews have been growing more than 1,000 species of
trees, bushes and plants at the park's nursery for replanting on Watson
Island - a profusion of gumbo limbo, ceibas, royal poincianas, calabashes
and African tulips, raphia palms and solitaire palms, plus a variety of
elephant ears and 15 species of heliconia.
says he believes the island's coarse, sandy soil is an advantage. Because
it is porous, it allows in water and oxygen, encouraging the growth of
micro-organisms that produce nutrients essential to tree and plant life,
and thus reducing the need for environmentally perilous inorganic fertilizer.
year, crews deposited 60,000 cubic yards of fill on the Watson site, raising
it to 12 feet above sea level, and then shaped it into a contoured landscape
of mounds, swells, pathways and ponds.
massive oaks, black olives and ficus trees growing on the site were gingerly
uprooted and moved to a staging area to make way for the contouring, then
moved back into place. All have survived, so far.
At the foot
of each, the fill has been layered over by a top dressing of four inches
of Parrot Jungle's compost, rich in desirable microorganisms and their
beneficial byproducts of nitrogen and phosphorus. Creeping vines have
been planted to make their way up the trunks. Growth of a pair of ficus
trees will be induced to replicate the giant banyan at the center of the
of paths, amphitheaters and the park's two main buildings, which enclose
more than 55,000 square feet of space, is now just under way.
fast-growing specimens that can create a wall of foliage in a matter of
months will be planted beneath the large trees, and on the ground beneath
those will come bromeliads, shrimp plants and heliconias for color, Shimonski
fed by municipal water and lined with concrete, will wend its way through
the man-made jungle, much like the natural Snapper Creek does at the existing
park. It will empty into an Everglades marsh where spoonbills, ibises
and other wading birds will disport themselves. The marsh also will function
as a natural filtration system for the stream.
new park opens, Shimonski said, the foliage will still appear relatively
thin. ``Within two years, with no hurricanes, the foliage will be more
than adequate for a nice park,'' he said. ``In three to four years, it
will be at its utmost.''
wind and noise from the adjacent MacArthur Causeway, and limit visibility
of anything outside the park, berms have been raised along its boundaries
and will be lined with heavy plantings, said Hakki Koroglu, the Coconut
Grove architect who is designing the project.
in the park, one should only sense the canopy, nothing more,'' Koroglu
the park's 500 parrots and other birds, many of them bred at Parrot Jungle,
will be gradually introduced to their new environment. The park's animal
handlers predict that the parrots, many of which come from islands and
coastal areas, will have little trouble adapting to it.
will be missing from the new Parrot Jungle: free-flying birds. Watson
Island, with its helicopter and seaplane traffic, is too dangerous for
it. At the old park, Levine sounds like a man satisfied that he has struck
the wisest compromise between preserving Parrot Jungle's past and securing
often does a business have this kind of opportunity - millions of people
from all over the world right at your door. But I want as much as possible
to look the same, to stay with what we do best.
just have to prove what we said.''