Hide and Shriek

The autumn sun filtered through the hurricane-battered branches of Fairchild Tropical Garden, illuminating a scene of ecological and communal merriment below. Thousands of people had turned out for the Ramble, the garden's annual horticultural festival on December 5 and 6, to celebrate the damaged Eden's gradual recovery post-Andrew. They bought rare shrubs and vines, wandered through the booths displaying homemade jams, antiques, and crafts, and watched wood-turning demonstrations. Botanical experts were on hand to solve plant problems and provide landscaping advice. Bluegrass music filled the air.

Amid all the diversions sat the weekend's prize attraction, donated by none other than Paloma Picasso, the high-society daughter of Pablo and a new Miami homeowner. The chairman of the event, Dr. James G. Stewart, Jr., says the item was valued at "several thousand dollars." It was so precious, in fact, that it was displayed safely within a glass enclosure. And in keeping with the Ramble's egalitarian spirit, the article was put up for a raffle. Two dollars a pop.

The beauteous object of scrutiny? A handbag made from the hide of a crocodile.

The presence of the reconstituted reptile created an uproar among some Fairchild supporters and employees at the fundraiser. "I think it was really tacky," remarks Bob Shanbrom, a South Miami vegan restaurant owner and a frequent visitor to the garden. "This place is about the appreciation of love and nature, not the exploitation of nature for man's status." Shanbrom describes the purse, which Paloma Picasso designed herself, as "slime green, the size of a two-layer cake, with a chintzy gold chain. They had it sitting pathetically under an inverted aquarium so no one could steal it."

The purse so irked the garden's publicist that she chose not to advertise it in the press release announcing the Ramble. "The garden is a place that conserves natural things," insists Kathy Gaubatz. "Now, if this were up at Bal Harbour and this were Neiman Marcus, then that would be one thing." Gaubatz recalls that another worker at the fundraiser was hoping to win the purse "so she could stand at the top of the overlook and fling it in the water and yell, `Swim free! Swim free!'"

According to Paul Moler, a crocodile expert for the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission, the world's dozen crocodile species "are all under some sort of stress and all are considered vulnerable." The American crocodile is both state and federally listed as endangered.

Ramble chairman Stewart says he accepted the gift only after Paloma Picasso assured Fairchild officials that the bag was not made from an endangered crocodile. "It was a situation where someone has just come to town who is very concerned with plant things, and we want her to get more interested in Fairchild," he explains. "The item was given in good faith. I had to take some heat over it."

Besides the purse, Picasso, who has her own line of cosmetics, jewelry, and accessories, also donated a bottle of perfume and a scarf, both of which were auctioned off with other items. Although Stewart says the raffle sold fewer tickets than he had expected (sales were "in the hundreds," he estimates), he reports that the weekend was a financial boon to the garden's renewal and the most successful Ramble to date. This year the event pulled in about $188,000, more than a twenty percent increase over 1991's profits.

But for Shanbrom, the crocodile bag was a blatant violation of the garden's principles. "What's next?" he asks. "Auctioning off pieces of the Chernobyl meltdown? I guess Stewart didn't want to look a gift gator in the mouth.

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Kirk Semple