EAST COUNTY — It’s peaceful here, before the big black gate at the end of a rocky road in East Bradenton.
It feels like just another rural paradise before you look closer at the curious gate, which features small cutouts of two brown bears staring at a Christmas tree.
The gate creeks open and a grizzly-bear looking man appears on a golf cart.
The man, Johnny Welde, the grandson of Johnny Johnson Welde and a third-generation animal trainer, carts across his 15-acre property, where 14 brown bears roam.
Well, mostly they, sleep, inside an air-conditioned den, within their own stalls. But the 8-foot-tall, 1,000-pound bears who call Bearadise Ranch home, also swim in a cold, natural pond, climb trees, ride bicycles and dunk basketballs.
Welde and his wife, Monica, have been exhibiting and training bears here for 13 years. The Florida Fish and Wildlife has approved this land as place to keep, show and rehabilitate bears. It’s one of only a handful of places in the country with such a distinction.
The ranch offers private tours and birthday parties, by reservation only.
Monica Welde narrates the tours using an educational presentation stressing the importance of habitat preservation and conservation of bears.
When they’re not on the ranch, the bears pack into a trailer — fitted with a pool and netted exercise area — and tour the country, performing at fairs from May through September, including the Florida State Fair.
Inside a lobby, which serves more like a museum, the Welde bears’ rich story tells itself.
In 1926, in the sub-arctic chill of Trondheim, Norway, orphaned brown bear cubs found a young Johnny Johnson Welde.
Johnny Johnson Welde grew up with the bears, and, in 1948, as development took over the land, he and his bears joined the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus.
Along with is wife, Tove, and daughter, Conny, Johnny Johnson Welde settled in Tampa.
Later, a talent scout saw a picture in a newspaper of a 3-year-old Johnny Welde tugging a chain attached to the muzzle of one his grandfather’s bears, Carrol.
The picture, which hangs in Bearadise Ranch’s lobby, set off a road to Hollywood for the Welde bears.
Walt Disney, Universal Studios and 20th Century Fox have produced movies in which many of the bears have starred. They’ve also appeared in television shows, including “Lassie.”
Almost 33 years ago, Monica Welde found the bears, too, when she danced in production numbers at the Clyde Beatty Circus. At one stop, in Fort Myers, Johnny Johnson Welde and his grandson brought their brown bears.
Frightened at first, Monica Welde grew to love the bears.
“I married the bears, too,” Monica Welde says.
The couple soon showed their bears at the Catskill Game Farm in New York, where they stayed for 16 years.They then moved to Tampa for more land. There, they lived with Johnny Johnson Welde. More development in Tampa, after Johnny Johnson Welde died, forced Johnny and Monica Welde south to the palmettos and palm trees of East Bradenton.
Here, the bears — most descendants of Johnny Johnson Welde’s bears — live comfortably.
The Welde’s use treats, including puppy biscuits, iced oatmeal cookies and salted and roasted peanuts, depending on the bear’s personality, to motivate the bears to learn tricks.
“You just show them something and they mimic you,” Johnny Welde said. “But they learn at different paces, just like humans. Their smarts are underrated.”
Mid-afternoon here on Bearadise Ranch usually means naptime.
And on this cloudless day, no bears are out.
Then, Welde whistles.
Two bears, Andy and Carol, sleeping behind bushes, awake and slowly trudge to their owner, who waits behind a wired fence.
Johnny and Monica Welde move closer, and the bears clank their teeth and, as a sign of affection, suck on their owners’ fingers.
“We share our lives with these animals,” Monica Welde says. “They will live with us until they die.”
Contact Josh Siegel at [email protected].
IF YOU GO
Bearadise Ranch Spring Fling Open House
When: May 4 and May 8
Where: 6908 245th St. E., Myakka City
Info: A tour will consist of a visit to the ranch’s small museum, bear viewing while the bears play in their natural habitat, narrated presentations and lunch. Reservations are required. Call 322-2462 or email [email protected].