When I was growing up one of my favorite things to do was to go to little mom and pop pet shops that were scattered everywhere at the time, often in the strangest of places like in people’s homes in the middle of the woods. These were the days before PetCo and PetSmart took over, when each little shop had it’s own charisma and personality, and also back in the days when you generally went to a pet store to buy live pets.
These tiny establishments often lasted for years on the money they’d earn mostly selling live fish but also hamsters, gerbils, rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, parrots, reptiles of all sorts, and on rare occasion purebred puppies or kittens. No one really knew about kitten or puppy mills back then and the sale of live animals was pretty much what kept these places going. It was a time that was both horrible and wonderful. It was horrible because even the dirtiest of places generally got by just fine without any harassment from the law, and wonderful because fanciers could go to a pet shop and find the strangest colors and mutations of common animals. Furless rats, satin mice, pointed gerbils, purple parakeets, you could find them all if you were willing to take a tour. This was a fun game for me.. and sometimes I brought friends along.
Once when I was brought my best friend to a shop nearby which she had never visited. I had gone to see if they still had bright crimson colored fancy mice as I had seen during my last visit. It was a store at someone’s house, in their basement, which was normal then. The first time I went it was pretty clean but on that day it was the middle of summer, the doors were open, and flies had infiltrated the entire building in great numbers. We hadn’t been in the shop long when all of a sudden my friend started squealing and charged out of the pet shop at great speed. I had no idea what just happened so I followed her out into the parking lot where I found her clawing at her ear.
“IT’S STILL IN THERE!!” She cried with much duress.
“What’s still in there?!”
“THE FLY! A FLY FLEW IN MY EAR!! AND I CAN STILL FEEL IT!!” She bounced up and down with great excitement, almost to the point of tears.
“I don’t think it’s still in there…” I tried not to laugh. She wasn’t the kind of person who appreciated it when I laughed at these little personal dramas. After all, it’s NOT FUNNY.
“IT IS!! IT ISS!! I DIDN’T FEEL IT FLY OUT!! OH MY GOD WHAT IF I SQUISHED IT IN THERE?! IT’S GOING TO BE IN MY EAR FOREVER!!!”
She was making this not laughing thing really hard. I wasn’t great at consoling her so I just watched, trying not to smile, until she calmed down, which took a great deal of time. Believe it or not this wasn’t the worst pet store I’d been to.
In a previous trip I brought her to a pet store that also doubled as the town shelter. I still don’t know if this was morally dubious or practically ingenious. I mean most pets who end up in shelters come from pet stores, why not make them into furry recycling centers?
The owner of the shop followed us around from room to room, sure we didn’t steal anything, being teenagers and all. I looked at the three impounded dogs including a German Shepard growling, barking, and trying to rip the door of his kennel off the hinges.
“Don’t try to pet that one!” The man yelled at us.
“Mmmm yeeeeah…. I was so going to try and pet that…. now I will have to leave sad and disappointed I didn’t have my face ripped off…”
But even this was not the worst. The worst pet store I ever went to I brought a different friend with me to. It was a pet store I visited many times that had been in existence for decades. It operated out of a barn and home which advertised with two terrifying plywood creatures nailed over the door. One was some sort of freakish octopus and I don’t know what the other was, a folksy Rorschach test probably. Anyway, this shop was always HORRIBLE, I mean outright disgusting. The smell was like nothing else I have ever encountered and it was dark, dank, and ill-kept. The first time I showed up here I rescued a heavily pregnant furless rat living in squalor with her two brothers. On all the next trips I was merely showing various friends and people how gross this place was. There was a fifty gallon tank on a top shelf that housed a massive colony of satin fancy mice. Their white fur glinted translucently in the few rays of sun that reached this far in and they were like little furry opals, absolutely gorgeous, if not for the fact they were a massive writhing swarm. They stood three or more layers thick on top of each other, writhing and running, with no part of their bedding visible between their frantic little bodies. The glass of the tanks were clouded with gunk.
With each visit things got worse… At some point I realized all the trailers lining the street were not for human habitation. They had no driveways, but they smelled, and you could hear the barking of hundreds of dogs coming from within them. They all belonged to this one property. She was the first encounter I had with a puppy mill. Eventually the state started cracking down on her operation and just because she’d been there for ever was no longer enough justification to leave her alone. The last time I visited there were no living creatures inside the shop and dead center in the middle of the floor was an empty but set up hospital bed. I didn’t even walk in. The sight of that creped me out so badly I turned around and left. I hear the place is still running… now more than fifteen years since I left it… Sad, I would have much rather some of the nicer pet stores made it but alas, this seems to be the last stand out as PetCo and PetSmart put everyone else out of business.