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Vintage St. Pete: The Florida Wild Animal Ranch

Bill DeYoung

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A linen postcard shows Indi, the baby elephant acquired in 1954, with Lida (left) and Christie Buresh. The young girl is Patricia Register, Abe and Joan's daughter.

It wasn’t a soap opera, exactly, but there was drama, and a lot of behind-the-scenes intrigue, at 4799 4th Street N. between 1938 and 1959. Don’t bother looking up the address – it no longer exists. For those 21 years, it was the site of the Florida Wild Animal Ranch, a landscaped, seven-acre zoo with one of the largest and most diverse animal menageries in Florida.

Here, at various times, visitors could ogle an Indian elephant, a giraffe, an 800-pound Russian brown bear, chimpanzees, a kangaroo, a Florida panther, zebras, monkeys, an ostrich, a giant anteater, a porcupine, a South American guanaco, oversized alligators, rattlesnakes and plenty more.

(When it came to animals, not a lot of people in those days paid attention to “indigenous” vs. “exotic.” And kids loved the place.)

The ranch’s human menagerie was unique as well, with carnies, hunters, hustlers, a man who lost his arm to a 12-foot gator, a famous circus aerialist and three diminutive cast members from The Wizard of Oz.

Today, the Florida Wild Animal Ranch (aka the Florida Wild Animal and Reptile Ranch) is a barely-remembered footnote in the story of St. Petersburg tourist traps.

In its heyday, however, the ranch’s brochure was everywhere, and its capital-letter pitch said it all: COME AND SEE WHY EVERYBODY SAYS IT’S THE GREATEST ATTRACTION OF FLORIDA’S WEST COAST!

 Tom

Born in 1896, Sterling William Thomson was a self-described “camel punk” who ran away from his Colorado home to join the circus; in 1933-34, the tough-as-nails roustabout was employed as an animal wrangler with Frank “Bring ‘Em Back Alive” Buck’s Jungle Camp, a sprawling zoo-slash-sideshow built for the Chicago World’s Fair and its “Century of Progress.” Buck was a famous “animal collector” who traveled to distant lands to trap, trade and buy exotic animals to put on display in the United States, in a time when laws, if they existed at all, were much less stringent than they are today.

Cut from the same cloth, Thomson bought and sold animals to zoos and circuses around the country. After the World’s Fair closed, he opened a “wild animal ranch” in Chicago’s Riverview Park. An encounter with outgoing Burwell Neal, manager of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce, led to Thomson moving here in 1937. He bought an old nursery site on 4th Street N., and the Florida Wild Animal Ranch opened for business in December 1938 – during the all-important winter season.  

Joan

Thomson’s history with the circus and carnival circuit resulted in numerous lasting acquaintances. Originally from Muncie, Indiana, 5-foot-1 Joan Weltmer was a trapeze artist and aerialist with Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey, the Hagenbeck-Wallace and Shrine circuses (she had left home at 13 to travel as a magician’s assistant). In Chicago with Ringling, she’d fallen from the trapeze and broken her back. Recovery took two years, and then she was right back up in the big tent.

Under the name Joan Spalding, she set a world record in 1942 for one-arm “plandges” – hanging by one arm, pulling up the body and rolling, over the arm, without letting go of the ring. She performed 382 of these in succession, suspended 110 feet in the air.

“A person performing an act like mine can’t quit even if they want to,” she told a reporter. “One’s heart muscles become so overdeveloped that they would die if they suddenly stopped the violent exercise which they must experience in perfecting the act.”

Nevetheless, Weltmer/Spalding retired from circus life in 1942, married S.W. “Tom” Thomson and moved to St. Petersburg.

Willie

St. Pete’s Willie Washington was a senior member of the ranch staff. The 31-year-old worked under the supervision of “foreman” D.L. Vaughn, Tom Thomson’s business partner. On Oct. 13, 1941, Washington and several other employees were re-locating several alligators, and a crocodile, to new exhibition areas, when Washington’s left wrist was snared by 12-foot, 800-pound “Big Bill,” the ranch’s second-largest alligator (only “Old Mose” was bigger and burlier). “Big Bill” did what alligators do – he bit down and he rolled.

The remains of Washington’s arm were amputated by doctors at Mercy Hospital. “Alligator Bites Off Negro’s Arm” read the next day’s headline in the St. Petersburg Times.

Washington later sued the Thomsons for $10,000; the court awarded him $2,500.

Christie, Lida and Eddie

Czech-born sisters Ludmila and Kristina Buresova, along with their brother Eddie, had been in the United States since the early ‘30s, performing at fairs, circuses and carnivals as part of the singing and dancing Singer Midgets troupe. All three had appeared as Munchkins in the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz.

In the early ‘40s, the Singer Midgets disbanded, and the diminutive trio came to work for their friends, the Thomsons, at the Florida Wild Animal Ranch (the surname had by then been Americanized to Buresh, and Ludmila and Kristina became Lida and Christie). The sisters, in particular, were experienced animal handlers.

A royal kerfluffle erupted in 1947, when the government discovered – after the war, when things calmed down – that the Buresova siblings had never applied for naturalization papers, and their 1937 work visas had long since expired.

Through the intervention of Joan Thomson, who convinced immigration authorities that her longtime friends were not only essential workers at her ranch, they were of good character and solid citizen material, they were allowed to stay. Their citizenship ceremony took place Aug. 17, 1954.

“Tommy” and “Joan”

June 22, 1947: Joan feeds the new babies. © George Trabant/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire

Tom Thomson bought whatever animals caught his eye, regardless of their origin, scarcity or habitat needs. A 1946 article in Billboard chronicled a single purchase of big cats, monkeys, venomous snakes and two infant chimpanzees from hunter Alfred Zaebst, recently returned from an African collecting trip.

The two chimps, which the Thomsons named after themselves, were taken from their mother in British West Africa, and would be the “stars” of the ranch’s animal “shows” over the next 10 years. A special glass-fronted cage was constructed for them, so visitors could get a good look.

Leather

The Buresh sisters working on alligator handbags, 1951. Florida Archives.

The Thomsons had a lucrative side business; their leather goods enterprise, in fact, brought in more money than the ranch itself. During open season on diamondback rattlesnakes in Florida, Tom bought skins from 24 different sources. Often the snakes arrived live and were killed and skinned at the St. Pete property. They purchased pythons and boas from across the globe and were familiar figures at the Tampa docks, where the crews of arriving South American banana boats frequently discovered reptilian stowaways wrapped in the bunches of fruit. Joan did a lot of the banana boat snake-sorting work herself. They also bought iguanas and alligators.

Once the hides were removed, they were shipped off to a tannery. Upon their return, they were stitched into bags, belts, buttons, hats and gloves by Joan, along with Lida and Christie, whose tiny hands, it was said, were “perfect” for creating small buttonholes and sewing in hooks.

In 1949, it was reported that the Thomsons and their employees turned out 2,200 handbags each year, half of which were alligator. S.W. was also an accomplished taxidermist.

Abe

January 20, 1959: Abe and friends. © Johnnie Evans/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire

On Sept. 22, 1950, “Tom” Thomson died of a heart attack. He was 54.

He had been in poor health for some time; Joan, in fact, had already taken over many of the ranch’s responsibilities, and was overseeing every aspect of the couple’s complex business.

Abner Burton Register, from Homerville, Georgia, had been employed at the ranch since the early days. He and Joan worked the chimps – growing now, and more difficult to handle – in the three times-daily shows for visitors.

Joan Thomson and “Abe” Register were married in 1953. Because of his interest in horticulture, improvements at the ranch included the planting of palm trees, hybrid flower species and other landscaping. Register and the crew constructed a concrete grandstand and a circular outdoor stage. Flamingos, swans and other “decorative” birds were added to the menagerie. They bought aged-out animals from their friends at the Ringling Circus, which wintered in Sarasota. The circus also sold them a 2-year-old giraffe in 1958, which they named “Big Abe.”

The end

December 15, 1959: The last facade. © George Trabant/Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire

In 1959, the Florida Wild Animal and Reptile Ranch celebrated its 21st birthday and closed for good, all within a matter of months. The City of St. Petersburg widened 4th Street that year, which necessitated the Registers selling the adjacent parcel of land – which brought the thoroughfare right up to the ranch’s front door.

And the center of St. Petersburg commerce, including the tourist industry, was shifting westward, away from downtown and the 4th Street corridor.

The mayor proposed buying the ranch, and acreage to the east, to develop a “kiddie playland” for St. Petersburg, with Abe and Joan staying on as the animals’ caretakers. The project instead became the zoo and playground at Boyd Hill Nature Trail, on Lake Maggiore.

Abe and his daughter, Patricia.

All the animals were sold – presumably, some of the smaller ones went to Boyd Hill.

Tampa industrialist J.W. Walker, board chairman of the First National Bank of St. Petersburg, paid the Registers $100,000 for the property, which included their own residence, early in 1961. He bought the land, he said, as an investment.

Abe, Joan and their three children – along with all three Buresh siblings – moved to a farm outside Lakeland, Georgia, not far from where Abe grew up.

Eddie, Lida and Christie Buresh are all gone – Eddie was the last, leaving this world in 1982 at the age of 72.

Joan Weltmer Spalding Thomson Register died in 2008 at age 93. Abe passed away, at 94, in 2016.

Today, there’s an apartment complex on the site. Its addresses are listed on 47th and 48th Avenues.

 

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