Bearadise Ranch hosts first ever Brunch with the Bears as a tribute to Johnny Welde, who passed almost one year ago.
It is approaching a year since Johnny D. Welde, the third-generation bear trainer in Myakka City, died in his sleep of cardiac arrest at age 60.
This will be the Welde’s first Christmas holiday without their father and husband, who died Jan. 25.
“Since my husband passed away, we obviously have had the holiday blues,” said Monica Welde, Johnny D. Welde’s wife. “It is not the same without him here.”
With the hope of raising spirits, Monica Welde decided she would celebrate the holidays with a new event at Bearadise Ranch. "Brunch with the Bears" took place Dec. 10 at the Myakka City ranch, which also doubles as the Welde family home.
“I decided to do it because I would like to do more events here — I enjoy having people here — and people love to come and watch the bears,” Monica Welde said. “Also, Johnny loved Christmas. so I know my husband would really enjoy this.”
The brunch included a surprise exhibit of Marie, an Asian elephant from Two Tails Ranch of Williston. Guests also were able to ride ponies and see a unicorn named Lily.
"Who wouldn't want to come to brunch with the bears?" Sarasota's Sydney Bowsher said. "I've seen pictures of the bears swimming in the lake and I think this is so awesome."
The Welde's son, Johnny Jr., gave educational demonstrations during the event. Johnny Jr., 26, has bared many of the responsibilities around the ranch since his father's death.
“He has actually stepped into his father’s shoes on many aspects — the handling and care of the animals and building an addition onto the bear house," Monica Welde said. "It was a big thing for him to come in and take his fathers place.”
Monica said Johnny Jr. was always his father’s “right hand” man.
“It has been a hard year,” Johnny Jr. said. “I have taken over a lot of the property work, welding things, feeding and cleaning the bears, it is a full time job.”
Johnny Jr. has been working with bears since he was just a 3-year-old, and he has no plans to stop.
"The bears have been in the family for 91 years. We won’t stop now.”
Working with the ranch's 14 bears makes him feel closer to his father.
“Me and my dad took care of the bears together, so it is different without him," Johnny Jr. said. "But we still plan on doing the road show until, hopefully, in the next couple of years we will get this place built up more so that we do not have to go on the road.”
Marcia Carleson Pack of Circus Arts Conservatory attended the Brunch with the Bears event.
"Monica asked me to help her with this event as a tribute to Johnny because he loved Christmas and everything about it," Pack said. "This is their first Christmas without him and the family did not really want to do anything but Monica told them their daddy would want them to do this."
She met Monica Welde through the circus, visited Bearadise Ranch and the two just "clicked," Pack said.
"I admire Monica so much," Pack said. "Since Johnny has been gone she has been running the ranch by herself with Johnny Jr.."
Monica Welde said for the time being, they keep their operation the same, meaning for eight weeks in the summer, mother and son will travel with the bears to shows and teaching opportunities.
Eventually, Monica Welde said she would love to build more capacity at the ranch so they could host more events like "Brunch with the Bears."
“My husband ran everything a certain way and he taught my son and myself everything with the bears, so we know our bears,” Monica Welde said. “We decided to continue the family legacy, my son and I. The bears have been in the family for 91 years. We won’t stop now.”
Monica Welde said she feels a responsibility to her husband to continue working with the bears.
“This was our dream to work with these animals," she said.
Now working with the bears helps to ease the pain of her husband's death.
“At least being with the bears makes me feel that connection with him,” Monica Welde said. “We raised them together and that has helped me in some ways get through the grief. Although, it still gets overwhelming, it has been difficult and I cry a lot, but I know I have to go on with my life. Johnny would be happy and proud of my son and myself.”