Just two hours southwest of Orlando, far from Florida’s beaten path is an attraction that’s popular for bear-ly doing a thing. And that’s what makes it special.
“Are you hungry babies?” Monica Welde coos lovingly while offering treats to her brood.
Monica’s ‘babies’ are anything but. They are full-grown bears—not stuffed, not Teddy, but the kind with sharp claws and teeth.
“Bears are fascinating creatures,” laughs bear handler Monica Welde. “And when you’ve lived with them as long as my husband Johnny and I have, you realize they’re just like kids with different personalities.”
Monica and Johnny Welde have 11 ‘kids’ on their 15-acre property appropriately named Bearadise Ranch. Here, visitors can observe the animals in a natural setting while learning a thing or two.
“We have grizzly, European Brown Bears, Syrian Brown Bear species and sub-species of the Brown Bear,” Monica explains.
Bearadise Ranch is located in Myakka City, but it’s all country. And that’s a good thing since most residents here have a tail, four legs or a pair of wings.
“We live next to a cattle ranch and there’s a dairy farm over there,” Monica states while pointing in the direction of vast wilderness.
Bears have been a part of the Welde family for 88 years. Johnny is a third generation bear handler, having worked with them since he was three.
“I’ve never been scared of the bears,” admits Johnny. “Always know to respect them and how far you can go with them. Some bears are nicer than others. They’re just like people.”
So comfortable is Johnny that when he leans in to nuzzle an 8-foot bear named Bruno, he’s greeted with a kiss. “Are you Daddy’s boy?” Johnny asks in a sweet parental tone.
“I really believe my husband was a bear in his previous life because these animals relate to him so well,” Monica chuckles. “Plus he has a body like a bear. He’s hairy like a bear.”
The bear gene can be traced back to Johnny’s grandfather. Johnny Johnsen Welde raised and trained orphan bear cubs as a boy growing up in Norway.
“When fishermen and hunters found cubs in the woods, they would bring them to him,” Johnny explains.
Johnny’s grandfather ran away from home and joined the circus. He traveled the world with Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, amazing crowds with his bear act.
His grandfather’s bears became Hollywood celebrities, appearing in several movies and TV shows, including Lassie, The Lucy Show and The Beverly Hillbillies.
Johnny and Monica have continued the family tradition, entertaining audiences with a new generation of Welde bears.
“Our bears were models for Disney’s animated movie Brother Bear,” says Monica. “And they were in Big Fish with Danny Devito.”
Along with public appearances, private bear viewing tours are offered at Bearadise Ranch by reservation only. The Weldes’ present their bears as ambassadors to send a vital message of the hardships their wild brethren face.
“All species of bears are either threatened or endangered,’ informs Monica. ‘Loss of habitat is a huge problem. So is poaching.”
The tour offers plenty of photographic opportunities for nature lovers and bear enthusiasts. The featured attraction, The Welde’s Big Bear Show gives visitors a glimpse of the bigger picture.
“When they see these animals up close, we hope they’ll take home an appreciation for them and want to help them out,” says Monica.
For the Weldes, it’s paws with a cause. For their ‘babies,’ it’s just another day in Bearadise.