Dealmakers: Parrot Jungle Owner, Bern Levine [New Miami magazine]
by Hope Katz Gibbs
New Miami magazine
Dealakers / April 1990
Design by Kevin Jolliffe
IN THE FALL OF 1988, environmentalists throughout Dade County let out a collective sigh of relief when two little-known investors stepped forward to purchase Parrot Jungle, the half-century-old attraction that just happened to be sitting on 31 highly developable acres in South Miami.
Dr. Bern Levine and Richard Schubot, took control of the property on October, 1988—a great day for aviary fans, but an avowedly bad financial move.
“This wasn’t a great business decision. It was a deal that came from our hearts and our pocketbooks. Of course, we don’t expect much will return to our pocketbooks,” says Levine, 47.
Since then, however, the turnstiles at Parrot Jungle have recorded all-time high numbers of visitors—attendance was up 15 percent last year, and revenue increased by 33 percent—as the two investors have marketed the amusement center in a fresh way that is finally appropriate for the times.
The pair concluded that the public wanted a toning-down of the entertainment hype of Parrot Jungle, epitomized by the billboard of Pinkie, the salmon-crested cockatoo on a tricycle, which stood at SW 102 St. and USI for 25 years. In its place is the new logo, a stately scarlet macaw.
The change in image was reflected, as well, in the re-naming of the park to Parrot Jungle and Gardens—emphasizing the attraction’s exquisite plantings. “In the past, the jungle was a tourist attraction where people came to see beautiful birds and be entertained,” says Levine. “But Parrot Jungle is no longer a show. We are an entertainment center, day and night, with educational attractions. But we are also a place you can go for a dose of tranquility and serenity.”
New amenities include a children’s playground, a corporate picnic ground, and a well-lit area for private evening functions. The natural habitat—which to date includes 1,000 different plants—is also expanding. Additions include a collection of heliconias, bromeliads, palms, fertis, aroids and orchids.
This is not to say that Levine and Schubot are blind to the value of good promotions. Among other things, they have featured a visit by Cheech and Chong—a two-headed, seven- legged snapping turtle. And let’s not forget the visit from actress Tippi Hedron, the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”
Perhaps the biggest promo, though, was a 113-foot manmade Christmas tree with 18,000 lights; the hollow inside had an ornamental exhibit through which visitors could pass. Other holiday decorations included another quarter-million lights that were draped throughout the park in celebration of “Look Up Miami,” a fundraising campaign to benefit the Children’s Home Society. Last April featured an Easter egg hunt, which is also scheduled for this month.
“We are going for the locals,” says Levine. “The market we need to tap into is the Miamian who hasn’t been to Parrot Jungle since they were kids, or maybe they’ve never been here at all. The way we are going to succeed is to beef up our attendance.”
A veterinarian who never practiced medicine, Levine is a Dr. Doolittle-type whose made millions in the pet supply business. His company, Country Pet Supply, provided $20 million worth of dog, cat, and bird food last year to 1,500 per stores from Savannah, Georgia, to Key West.
Twenty years ago, he found a regular customer in Franz Scherr, the original owner of Parrot Jungle. When Franz died in 1973, the park was left to his wife—who died two years later—and five children. Through the next decade family problems erupted and sale of the property became eminent. The family, however, wanted Parrot Jungle to remain a bird sanctuary.
“I knew how important it was for the jungle to remain a park, and not be turned into a parking lot,” insists Levine, but he didn’t want to take on the project alone.
Then in 1985 he met Dick Schubot, a jolly, 63-year-old bearded eccentric who fancies square-shaped bifocals. At the time, he was the sole owner of all the McDonald’s franchises in Palm Beach. After selling the 20 stores, he caught what he calls, “the bird bug.” He purchased a rare Choctaw from Levine, one of the first of 1,000 he keeps on his 40-acre estate in Loxahatchee. He also conducts non-invasive research into ways to cure fatal bird diseases.
Levine also lives on a makeshift animal compound with his wife and their son (he raises exotic birds, a llama, some orangutans, a chimpanzee, miniature ponies and several miniature zebu cows). So he and Schubot decided to go into business together.
And although Levine admits he’ll probably never get out all the money he’s put into Parrot Jungle, he says it will be a long, long time before he hands over the land to hungry real estate developers.
“We plan to constantly improve and expand the park,” the good doctor says. “If I have anything to do with it, they’ll have to wait another 53 years before anything but birds live here.”
Hitchcock would be happy.