Drive down McIntosh Road, and the expected emerges. Barns dot patches of farmland, trucks idle on private dirt roads and capes of Spanish moss hang over the street. Then, in a scene more common in the Australian outback, two emus strut along a fenced-in section of road.
Astute tourists and locals who know Buddy Walker, 53, pull into a small parking lot for Oak Hill Wildlife Center, a 5-acre "zoological conservation center" in Dover.
Oak Hill is part foster home, part retirement community for exotic animals. A prize-winning llama lives out its golden years near a 30-pound boa constrictor. Cast-aside cockatiels and the two outcast emus spend their days basking in Walker's kitschy animal kingdom.
The refuge isn't open to the public because of liability, he said. When Walker does host a birthday party or haul some of the animals to an educational event, he accepts only donations. His day job as a bailiff at the Hillsborough County Courthouse keeps him and the animals afloat.
Walker isn't trying to make a profit or start his own zoo. He said he's just trying to give misfits a better life.
"It's what I've done all my life," Walker said.
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Walker grew up in Plant City collecting critters. When people outgrew their pets, they brought them to him. Caring for unwanted iguanas and ferrets was part of his childhood.
He acquired his property in 1993. It was nothing but three palm trees and a pasture, he said. He planted giant oaks and bamboo plants. He created koi ponds and a nature walk.
"That's why I can never sell this place," Walker said as he stood in his Asian garden this summer. "I know every plant."
Six years after settling into his home, Walker started an outreach program. He gave conservation talks at local schools and Boys and Girls Clubs. He enjoyed the work but wanted to showcase more animals and make the experience visitor friendly.
Oak Hill Wildlife Center was his solution. He said he follows all the state guidelines — annual permits, enclosure requirements — and has lost track of how much he has spent on enclosures and food. "Thousands and thousands of dollars," is his best guess.
When Walker isn't working as a bailiff for Judge Wayne Timmerman during the day or drumming in a classic rock band on the weekend, he's taking care of the animals. He does all of the work himself. People have expressed interest in volunteering, he said, but they never show up.
"It's a lot to do alone," he said.
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"Flower, would you wake up?" Walker asks.
He walks around to the back of the skunk's enclosure. Flower, who has been descented and neutered, dozes in his plastic house.
"He's a good skunk," Walker said, "but so shy."
Like a social worker, Walker knows the complicated histories of almost every animal in the center. Flower was a pet until his owner decided to give him away. The skunk has been living with Walker for years.
Other animals come from hostile homes. Chutney, an Amazon parrot, lived in a house full of dogs.
"He doesn't talk," Walker said, stopping at Chutney's cage. "He's terrified."
A shaggy Highland cow belonged to a traveling petting zoo, and an 81/2-foot Colombian boa constrictor was someone's pet. Stella, the llama, was a four-time blue-ribbon show animal. Her owners didn't want her once she started aging.
Many of the older animals, moved to Walker's center to live out their final days in peace, have physical ailments.
Myra, an Amazonian yellow-footed tortoise that is a retired teaching animal, has bad eyes. Cookie, a black Vietnamese potbellied pig, suffers from arthritis.
Walker says he does the best he can to provide each animal with attention and care. His vacations last no more than three days. He makes sure sick animals get to a hospital. In an ideal world, he said, the animals would live in a place where they get daily attention.
Walker worries about what will happen when he can no longer take care of the animals. He doesn't know what he'll do. For now, he just takes things day by day.
"I'm committed to this responsibility," he said.
Sarah Hutchins can be reached at email@example.com.