Businessman left wild legacy
By MARTY CLEAR
Published July 6, 2007
In some ways, David Kitchen was the quintessential country boy. He loved the outdoors, all sorts of animals and working with his hands.
But he was also a consummate businessman who ran several successful enterprises. It was sometimes hard, friends said, to tell where his personal life ended and his business life began.
"Whenever I'd stop by the house, there was always something going on, " said his daughter-in-law, Eddie Louderback. "His phone was constantly ringing. In fact, we're thinking of burying him with his phone in his hand."
Mr. Kitchen, 64, died June 29, 2007, from lung cancer that was only recently diagnosed.
Among his legacies are Terraqua Aquatics, a tropical fish company with operations in Balm and Arcadia; Dodge City, a replica of an Old West town that he built on the Wimauma property he called home for many years; and Elmira's Wildlife Sanctuary in Wimauma, which he co-founded with friend Ted Greenwood. He also developed and managed several trailer parks in Wimauma.
His entrepreneurial ventures all seemed to succeed, Louderback said. He had a knack for business, she said, but the real key to his success was his work ethic.
"If he saw an opportunity, he went for it, " Louderback said. "And then he worked as hard as he could to make it successful. If that meant he had to put in 15- or 16-hour days, than that's what he did. It's just the way he always was. When he put his mind to something, there was just no stopping him."
Mr. Kitchen was born in North Carolina, but he moved to the Tampa area with his mother when he was about 5 years old. City life never suited him, so he moved to Wimauma as a young man and lived there the rest of his life.
One of his first childhood pets was a skunk, which bit him and gave him rabies. That forced young David to undergo a very painful series of injections in the abdomen. Still, it didn't dampen his enthusiasm for wildlife.
Among his first business ventures was a tropical fish farm that began on his Wimauma land. That evolved into Terraqua Aquatics, one of the area's biggest fish-farming operations.
When the company had grown to the point to where Mr. Kitchen could mostly run things by phone from his home, he turned his attention to other business ventures. He converted some of his land into trailer parks and in 1998 created Dodge City. He built the authentic-looking Old West town, which is home to deer, ostriches and emus, mostly for his own amusement, but he also offered it for weddings and other special events.
About the same time, Mr. Kitchen joined with Greenwood and started Elmira's Wildlife Sanctuary. It began modestly, when they took custody of two bears, a lion and a tiger that no one else wanted. It has since grown into a nonprofit organization that houses dozens of exotic animals.
"He was one of those people who was bigger than life, " said Robin Greenwood, Ted Greenwood's widow and the president of Elmira's.
"He had a very forceful personality. He was very demanding, but also generous. If someone had an animal that needed a home, he'd say, 'Okay, bring him down here, and I'll build a cage.' He'd do the same for his employees. If they needed a home, he'd get them a trailer."
Mr. Kitchen was diligent about getting a physical every year, and in December doctors told him he needed a pacemaker. Once the pacemaker was implanted, Mr. Kitchen felt better than he had in years.
That may be one reason why he didn't notice symptoms of lung cancer until it was too late. He died within weeks of getting the diagnosis.
"He lived a full day every day, " Louderback said. "He made his own life, and he lived it his way."
Mr. Kitchen is survived by his wife, Marion "Mickey" Kitchen, three daughters, one son, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.