The Bonita Wonder Gardens welcomed its new executive director, Neil Anderson, in mid-August. Since 1992 Anderson served as director of the Northeastern Wisconsin Zoo, known as the NEW Zoo & Adventure Park, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
“I’m excited about continuing the improvements begun by former director David Rahahe:tih Webb, while maintaining the history and small-town treasure feeling of the Wonder Gardens,” Anderson said.
After Webb moved to North Carolina in support of his spouse’s career, he served remotely as Anderson took over the helm. He is now a Wonder Gardens board member, helping to shape its future.
In a recent press release, Donna Flammang, Wonder Gardens board chair said, “The board is so appreciative of all David has accomplished here. He has taken us to the next level and leaves us in a great position. Neil will be able to continue growth and improvements, including pursuing accreditation, which he did successfully in Wisconsin.”
Webb recently launched the Wonder Gardens’ application process for accreditation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Anderson spoke about the significance of the accreditation. “It’s the gold standard of the industry,” he said. “There are only 238 accredited zoos and aquariums in 13 countries around the world.”
“It involves a rigorous peer-reviewed process covering all aspects of the facility, the organization, and its partnerships,” Anderson said. “Being accredited assures visitors and donors that we’re maintaining the highest standards in our operations.”
Last September the NEW Zoo marked a quarter century of maintaining its accreditation.
“I’m confident the community of Bonita Springs will come together, as we did in Green Bay, to make it happen,” he said.
The NEW Zoo in Green Bay was a small roadside attraction when Anderson arrived as its director 30 years ago. “The community embraced our project as we gathered financial support and upgraded our operations,” he said. “It’s good to know I helped it achieve a sustainable position.”
While the Wonder Gardens sits on three acres and the Green Bay facility spans 43 acres, Anderson sees similarities between the two attractions. “Their historic aspects are fairly similar,” he said. “I like to bring past, present, and future together on the site.”
Shortly before leaving the NEW Zoo, Anderson coordinated construction of an impressive canopy tour. It boasts a long, elevated walkway with 17 bridges overlooking the park and various animal enclosures. After leaving the zoo, Anderson learned the walkway had been named for him. “The leadership team surprised me with that honor and made a new logo for the tour,” he said.
Nestled among sprawling banyan trees and tropical flora, the Wonder Gardens zoological park and botanical garden is a refuge for rescued and non-releasable birds and reptiles. While preserving the site’s 86-year history, the facility cares for over 300 resident animals.
As a public-private partnership, the city owns the property while the non-profit organization Bonita Wonder Gardens continues to operate it.
Numerous education programs and events at the Wonder Gardens attract visitors and community members to this jewel in historic downtown Bonita Springs.
Anderson plans to examine the wildlife enclosures at the Wonder Gardens and determine what needs upgrading. “As their stewards, our work is to keep their habitats up to excellent animal welfare standards,” he said.
Anderson began his career in the mid-1980s at the Jacksonville Zoo and worked for Sea World before moving to Wisconsin. Originally from Michigan, he and his wife, Beth, have three sons. One is a zookeeper in Duluth, Minnesota. “His goal is to get back to the zoo in Green Bay where his roots are,” Anderson said. “We actually lived in a house at the zoo and our kids would wake up each morning to the sound of lions roaring.”
Anderson wants to involve community members in co-creating a master plan for the Wonder Gardens. “It’s really about looking at the whole site and bringing user groups together to make plans for enhancing it,” he said. “Zoos are a reflection of their community. I like going from ‘they’ to ‘we’ and hearing visitors say, ‘Look what we created.’”
Visit the Wonder Gardens at 27180 Old 41 Road in Bonita Springs. For more information, go to wondergardens.org or call 239-992-2591.