Bearadise Ranch will remain open despite Johnny Welde's death.
The worry, of course, is it will no longer be Bearadise.
Monica Welde can't ask her 14 brown and grizzly bears, who live on their Myakka City family property, what they are thinking. And, yet, she knows.
"They do notice Johnny's absence," said Monica as she walked the 32,000-square-foot habitat built by her husband. "They look around for him, and I'm sure if they could talk they would wonder why he is gone. I wear one of Johnny's shirts when I feed and clean the bears, so they can smell his scent on me, and I think that's comforting to them."
Johnny D. Welde, the third-generation trainer who blended his family with his bears, died in his sleep of cardiac arrest on Jan. 25 at 60. His wife, Monica, vows Bearadise Ranch will continue to thrive.
"This was our dream together," Monica said. "We built it from the ground up and we still have a lot of plans. It will take some time to get them going, but I will do what Johnny wanted to do here."
She said the immediate plan will be to focus more on the tour aspect of the ranch, which hosts bus tours, school groups and tourists. “Johnny and I had talked about building up our name in the tourism industry, so I plan on doing that,” Monica said. "We only do two days a week now, but eventually we hope to build it up to four days a week.”
Her husband would take the Bears on the road to do shows at festivals such as state fairs. The Bears also were featured in films and commercials. Some of that business might slow a bit until Monica, 56, gets everything in order.
The Welde family business began in 1926 in Norway when Johnny's grandfather, Johnny Johnson Welde, ran away to join the circus and began an animal act. By 1946, he had moved to the United States, working with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum Bailey Circus in 1947-48. His bears eventually appeared in almost 20 Walk Disney films and on TV shows such as the Beverly Hillbillies, Lassie, the Lucy Show and Petticoat Junction.
Eventually, Johnny D. Welde took over the business and built Bearadise Ranch on 15 acres 19 years ago. It has been open to the public for tours the past 17 years.
"I called Johnny 'the Bear Whisperer,' because he had such a good relationship with the bears and communicated so well with them," Monica said. "I actually believe my husband was a bear in his previous life. They loved him and the relationship he had with them was special. It is something you don't see everyday."
Monica and Johnny had three children, Anjelica Welde, 18, Johnny Jr. Welde, 26, and Jenny Welde-Thomas, 31.
“He was always there, and he always made sure I was happy,” Anjelica Welde said. “He was a wonderful father, and he did everything he could for me. Whenever we would travel with the bears, I would always ride in his truck with him, and he would talk to me about everything, telling me stories about his life.”
Johnny Jr. will help his mother run the ranch.
“I mean, how many people have bears in their backyard?” Monica Welde said. “We are a novelty, a unique family."
Johnny's grandfather was his father figure and he was working with the bears from the time he was 4. He spent a lot of that time at the circus or in Hollywood. The bears became his life, and when Monica and Johnny met, the bears became their life.
Mark Sparks, a vice president of Triangle Talent LLC, is a talent agent who recruits acts for the Florida State Fair. He has been working with the Weldes for almost 20 years now and has long appreciated the family’s uniqueness in terms of the way they run their bear business.
“What is unique about the Welde bears, and Johnny’s training methods, was that it wasn’t done with any kind of fear, it was a partnership,” Sparks said. “I thought it was amazing how much the bears loved him — that was very obvious to me. When I would go to the ranch, I would see him in the lake cleaning things outside, and the bears would always be leaning against him. It was like he couldn’t work because the bears were trying to get his attention.”
Nowadays, Sparks has to be picky about the animal acts he recruits for the fair.
The Welde bears were never in question.
"I'm very picky about the animal acts I suggest to my clients, because not everyone has the same attitude," Sparks said. "The audience wants to see animals who are happy and enjoying themselves. When you have a thousand-pound bear, you have to be partners with them because you can't control them. Johnny's bears were always happy."
Now they will say the same things about Monica and her children. “He always wanted people to be happy,” Monica Welde said of her husband. “He was very giving and had a big heart.”
Now, just as Monica tells guests about the preservation and conservation concerning bears, she will need to tell them her husband's history.
"It’s going to be hard, but not too hard because I have my family and my friends,” Monica said. “Johnny would definitely want me to carry on his legacy. I see him. He’s everywhere I look. He is watching over me, the kids and the bears, and I will miss him greatly for the rest of my life. He was my soulmate, my best friend and my life.”