Read the original article by Rebecca Santana at gainesville.com here.
Schuler moved her family to Ocala in 1973. A few years later, she married Gene Schuler, a former circus worker, and they took in a lion that could no longer perform. That marked the start of what would become the Wild Animals Retirement Village in Waldo.
It all started with a lion named Sheba. But Rusti and Gene Schuler didn’t stop there. They went on to take in chimps, bears and even an elephant, to eventually create the Wild Animal Retirement Village, which opened in the mid-’80s in Micanopy and later moved to Waldo.
Schuler, 80, died Sunday night of congestive heart failure, but never lost her love for animals or the Wild Animal Retirement Village.
“Until the day she died, she talked about that dang place. She felt like she gave her life to something with a purpose,” said Sandi Kistner, one of Schuler’s four daughters.
Schuler was born in Sebree, Kentucky, in 1937. She married, moved to Chicago and had her four girls before eventually divorcing and moving the family to Ocala in 1973. A few years later, she married Gene Schuler, a former circus worker, and they took in a lion that could no longer perform. That marked the start of what would become the Wild Animals Retirement Village.
After a difficult past and a difficult marriage, the village became her therapy, Kistner said.
“She really had this unbelievable passion, and I believe that was kind of her outlet,” Kistner said.
The center was a home for old circus animals and exotic pets. Its slogan was, “If you can’t give us a place to live, then give us a place to die.” It became a refuge, and when people heard about it, the Schulers’ menagerie grew. Kistner said they had enough heart to house the animals, but space became an issue. Eventually the center moved from Micanopy to a plot of land in Waldo off of U.S. 301.
The Schulers dealt with their fair share of criticisms, once being cited for letting their elephant Zeta out onto U.S. 301, but they continued. The family worked hard to run the sanctuary, and the children played heavy roles in the zoo’s maintenance and upkeep.
“We had to feed the horses and we had to feed the lions and we had to take the dogs for walks and we had to clean all the cages and we had to build cages. We did all those things,” Kistner said, “It was hard work. We got up before school, and we went to school all day and we came home and we worked all day. That’s what it took to run that place.”
When Gene Schuler fell ill, the family dismantled the sanctuary, making sure all the animals found good homes.
The rescue lasted for more than 25 years and was home to hundreds of animals, Kistner said.
“When the time came, it was heart-wrenching for her because there goes the people, there goes the community, there goes the thing she loved and then she had to say goodbye to the animals, and that was a gut-wrenching day for her,” Kistner said.
Gene Schuler died in 2006, leaving Rusti alone on the property. For years she had lived in a small cabin on the property, and once it was no longer tax exempt, the back taxes became a worry. The Alachua Conservation Trust, which owned the land after the refuge closed, allowed Schuler to stay until she died.
Within the last three years, Schuler suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and congestive heart failure. In her last days she stayed in her cabin, drank margaritas and pinot grigio and sat in her chair. The backbreaking work of running the village seemed to catch up to her, leaving her with crippling arthritis and a limited range of motion. In the end, she sat in her “damn chair” and watched her “damn TV shows” because “damn” was her favorite curse word, her daughter said.
Schuler was in North Florida Regional hospice care, but was cleared to live in her cabin. Besides her daughters, she’s survived by eight grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. Worth Cremation Services is handling arrangements and the family plans a 2 p.m. memorial service April 28. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that any gifts be made to Single Vision Inc., an animal refuge in Melrose, or Peaceful Paths, a Gainesville-based organization that helps abused women.
The service will be held at the property, 8901 NE Highway 301 in Waldo. Kistner said she will spread half of her mother’s ashes where Boonie the baboon’s cage used to be, and the other half into the ocean.