Afterward, Vitilio’s aunt told him that if he didn’t make this his next business venture, she’d have her husband steal the idea for himself.
Vitilio started breeding white pigeons, and by that fall they were ready to go. He booked half a dozen weddings by word of mouth, and after a local morning show asked him for a live demo the following spring, his phone started ringing incessantly.
Vitilio never sets an alarm clock. He rises around 8 a.m., throws on sweatpants and heads out to feed the more than 100 animals he keeps on his 15 acres, which he calls Eagle’s Nest Ranch. He drives around in a golf cart, with a bucket of dead rodents in the back. Most were caught by the hawks.
He talks to each animal — the horses, the chickens, birds and the big cat — with sounds that mimic the noises they make. As he calls out, they come in, waiting for his affection and inevitable snack.
Inside the house — perfectly clean and country chic — is the domain of his wife, Michele, whom he married in 2004 and who has come to love the world he has created. But Vitilio’s touch is unmistakable: Above the pool table off the kitchen is a monster buffalo head. The animal used to live out back until he nearly escaped and Vitilio decided it wasn’t safe to keep him.
Vitilio has an exhibitor’s license to keep exotic animals and, over the years, has had as many animals as a small zoo: monkeys, zebras, alligators, lions. He’d like to get a kangaroo someday, plus penguins and a giant turtle little kids could ride.
He welcomes church groups, families and class trips to his property, taking hours enthusiastically explaining each animal. He was never trained in how to care for any of them, but learned, he says, “through trial and error.”
“I just know what makes them happy,” he says. “It’s just how they respond. Every animal has different needs. It’s not that I’m an expert at any of them. But I think I’m a jack of all trades with all of them.”
Wood can explain her brother’s touch only by saying it’s a God-given gift. She has stayed in the golf cart watching as he sat on the ground at the edge of his woods, bottle of milk in hand, waiting for an orphaned fawn. When the young deer approached, he’d butt the inside of Vitilio’s thigh, as if nuzzling the milk from his mother, then drink from the bottle in Vitilio’s hands.
Vitilio never had children, but spends most of his time as a caretaker — feeding, cleaning and comforting animals. He gets calls from neighbors and friends of friends who have found a wounded bird or a sick rabbit and don’t know what to do.