Three miles down the Loxahatchee River, where it meanders through the Jonathan Dickinson State Park in Hobe Sound near Jupiter, is Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Garden, or what is left of it. The site is accessible only by canoe, boat or tour boat. A slow excursion on the tour boat, the Loxahatchee Queen III, offers views of tropical vegetation and wildlife — manatees lazily gliding through the water, an eagle soaring above, an osprey perched in a barren tree and an alligator hiding along the shore line.
No matter how you get to Nelson’s camp, the original boat dock built by Nelson still stands, as do a hand-built chickee hut, water tower and Trapper’s cabin. Inside the cabin, a museum of sorts is set up to portray Nelson’s life and his eccentricities. A framed photo of coins found by park rangers during restoration supports the tale that Nelson was known for hiding money around his property. In 1984, more than 5,000 coins worth about $1,800 were discovered when mortar was pulled away near his fireplace.
Woodpiles still stand, a testament to the amount of wood Nelson would chop for himself. A guest cabin that once welcomed visitors to the camp is relatively bare, stripped clean by vandals following Nelson’s death. Many of the cages Nelson built to house the animals are still on the property. Signs on the cages indicate what was once there: alligators, wildcats and raccoons.
History of Trapper Nelson’s Zoo and Jungle Garden
The history of how Trapper Nelson (aka Vincent Natulkiewicz) made his way to this area is as colorful as the man himself. Upon his arrival in 1931, he settled into a temporary hunting camp near the Jupiter Inlet, where he lived off the land, trapping animals and selling their hides. However, development meant less game, so in 1933 Nelson travelled up the Loxahatchee in a rowboat and set up his homestead where it is today. Although Nelson was considered a loner, as people learned of his camp, he became known as the Wildman of the Loxahatchee. It is said he could be seen jumping from a rope swing into the river.
In the mid-1940s, Nelson turned his property into a wildlife zoo and for the next 15 years or so, visitors would travel to see him wrestle alligators and wrap himself up in snakes. Folks could stay in one of his cabins, buy souvenirs or rent rowboats, and get a close-up look at the many animals he had trapped.
Nelson closed his attraction to tourists in the early 1960s, citing his distrust of people, and ongoing rules and regulations by the state to keep it open. A sign still hangs on one of the trees over the river warning people to keep out. It is said that he would take shots at people who ventured too close.
Little was heard from Trapper Nelson from the time he closed his zoo until he was found shot to death in 1968, his shotgun beside him. Authorities ruled his death a suicide, although there are still some folks who believe he was a victim of foul play.
During his life, Nelson was actively engaged in efforts to preserve the Loxahatchee River and protect his land. After his death, his estate was sold to a developer, but a land swap with the Florida Park Service made it part of Jonathan Dickinson State Park, where it has been preserved and protected.
Trapper’s is open 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week, although the schedule may vary throughout the year.
Doris Keeler is a freelance writer and blogger from Orlando who travels the state on weekends searching for people and places that represent “old Florida.” If you’re looking for things to do, or just want to see some of the unique things around the Sunshine State, visit her blog at www.FloridianaMagazine.com.