By AMY REININK
Sun staff writer
Article published Nov 12, 2006
WALDO – For years, the Waldo Wild Animal Retirement Village was noted for its high-profile animal hijinks, from the elephant that pushed a disabled car down Waldo Road and liked to drink beer to the chimpanzee that got loose and wreaked havoc in a neighbor’s yard.
Robert Stephens, 66, of Gainesville, hadn’t heard about an animal escape for a while, and wrote to Since You asked wondering why the animal village went quiet.
“What is the current status of the Waldo Wild Animal Retirement Village?” Stephens asked. “The Sun used to have stories about it occasionally, but there has been nothing for some time. The gate is still open but there appears to be little traffic there, as well as a lack of signs. Are they open? Are the animals still there?”
Gene Schuler, the village’s owner, died earlier this year at age 75.
Three years earlier, when he fell ill, his wife, Rusti Schuler, made the decision to close the village that had been open to the public since the mid-1980s.
The village housed unwanted or abused exotic pets and circus animals, including an elephant, a bear, four chimpanzees, several cougars, a lion and a baboon, among others.
The bear went to Texas, Schuler said. The cats went to Ocala. And the chimpanzees went to a woman in Bushnell who already had some chimps of her own. Schuler, who’s almost 70 herself, said knowing that her animals went to good, loving homes only made it a little easier to part with them,
“I tell you, I miss my chimps,” she said. “For a while, I was calling down there and talking to them once a week or so. She would hold the phone up to their ear and I’d talk to them. But then, she told me when they’d talk to me, they’d lose their appetite for a week or so after.”
The facility drew both praise and criticism while it was open for its treatment of animals, and was the subject of scrutiny from the Fish and Wildlife Commission and other agencies.
It was also the subject of the television show “Hard Copy,” which visited the village in 1991 after two chimps, Joe Bananas and Chipper, broke out of their cages and played in a neighbor’s yard.
In 1989, Zeta, a 10,000-pound elephant, netted national attention when she helped push the Schulers’ disabled car off of U.S. 301.
Schuler still lives on a mobile home on the property. Signs her husband made by hand reading “Bears” and “Tigers” still hang outside their home, the animals are gone.
She does have 10 dogs, mostly Yorkies or Yorkie mixes, to keep her company, and has taken a job with an agency called Comfort Keepers. Schuler said her job is to keep older or sick people company, and to make sure they eat well and take their medicines.
She said the caregiver role fits her well, though she hasn’t gotten over the loss of her original charges.
“We still get calls from Boy Scout troops, Girl Scout troops, you name it, and people who drive up to ask if we’re open,” she said. “I wish we were open. I didn’t enjoy anything better than I enjoyed that.”