Petpalooza: Providing for all creatures great and small

March 07, 2011

The Monthly, Mike Rosen-Molina

Usually, Susan Anderson of Oakland doesn’t care much for dogs. The proud owner of a backyard chicken coop, she’s wary of the canine propensity to chase and eat chickens. But she doesn’t let that stop her from shopping at Concord Feed, where she finds what she considers the best supplies for her chicks.

“There is a wonderful dog who stands with her paws on the counter to help you!” says Anderson, known locally as “The Crazy Chicken Lady” for her pet Buff Orpingtons, Rhode Island reds, and even a Polish named after Phyllis Diller. “It’s a wonderful place to get either a handful or a hundred pounds of feed and supplements, hay, straw, and bedding.”

Concord Feed is just one of the many small, locally owned pet stores that thrive in the East Bay by recognizing that, for many, pets are far more than just animals. A big fluffy malamute or a shivery Chihuahua, an aloof pussycat, a chatty parrot, or your basic starter pet, the hamster—they’re all part of the family.

And when it comes to finding the best for their pets, everyone, like the Chicken Lady, has a favored source. Sue Tenerowicz of Moraga likes the small-town atmosphere of the Rheem Valley Pet Shoppe (sister store to the Lafayette Pet Shoppe), where employees always recognize her—and her rabbit, Sally. Susan Hoffmann of Oakland brings her Yorkie terrier, Nova, to Oakland’s PetVet PetFood on Broadway in part because of the friendly, laid-back feeling.

“Shopping for your pet is an emotional experience,” says Garrett Dodge, the Berkeley-based developer of Fidofactor, a website and iPhone app that helps animal lovers find pet-friendly businesses. “When you go into the pet store you want to feel good about buying something special for your beloved companion. Part of the process is your interaction with the storeowner. Do they love pets as much as you do?”

Dining for dogs

Nova—aka The Supernova—is a tiny, excitable ball of beige and brown fluff. She usually isn’t picky about what she eats. In the year since Hoffmann adopted the pup from Oakland Animal Services Shelter, Nova has been snatching up everything from kibble from the cat’s bowl to peas and carrots dropped from the dinner table. But Nova does get finicky about her beef food chew strips, which Hoffmann can only find at PetVet.

“[Nova] loves going in with me as she gets tons of attention from her fan club there—and free treats, too,” says Hoffmann.

While Nova might not be fastidious about her diet, Hoffmann is. She started shopping at PetVet when her previous dog, a big German Shepherd named Jetson, needed a special diet to help with kidney problems. “Dogs are carnivores,” she says, noting that dog foods at PetVet are made of meat. “It’s not right when you look at a can of food and see that the first ingredient is corn or gluten.”

Nutrition is, in fact, one of the biggest concerns of many animal lovers. For years, pet food suffered from a shady reputation, bringing to mind images of mystery meat scraped from a factory floor. But several Bay Area stores are actively combating the outdated stereotype.

Heidi Hill of Holistic Hound believes that what humans put into their bodies every day has a huge impact on their health. Similarly, when a customer brings her an under-the-weather dog, she thinks first about diet. “People come in saying, ‘My dog has chronic diarrhea, kidney disease, irritable bowel syndrome,’ and I think about, ‘What can I do to improve the quality of life?’” says Hill. In keeping with the company name, the shop stocks a variety of nutritional supplements and herbal remedies, as well as raw, organic, and locally grown food, and Hill invests quality time in sussing out natural approaches to canine ailments.

A pleasantly rustic-looking shop, Holistic Hound is tucked away in a corner shopping gallery on North Berkeley’s Walnut Street. Outside, a water bowl sits by the front door, under a sign that promises “After-Hours Treats for Good Dogs.” Inside, strings of red and yellow lights cast a warm glow over solid wood-paneled walls and tables strewn with sock monkeys and chew toys. Plush dog beds are stacked high in the bay window, and, in the back, a softly humming freezer brims with raw and organic dog food. The homey atmosphere makes customers feel welcome, an important ingredient in Hill’s personalized approach to animal care. “We do a lot of consulting to find what works for each dog or cat, because no one food is right for every animal,” she says.

Pet Food Express, a specialty food store with 37 locations around the greater Bay Area, embodies a similar ethic—the company’s president, Michael Levy, refuses to carry food containing artificial or imprecisely described ingredients. In 2007, when a contaminated pet food scare swept across the country, most stores only pulled the individual can numbers known to be affected. Pet Food Express played it safe and jettisoned every can in the shipment, Levy says.

“We have a culture based on all of us being very hands-on,” he says. “We attract people who love animals and that’s why they want to work here.”

Patrons cite customer service as the number one reason for shopping at Pet Food Express. Employees receive ongoing training in product use and patiently answer questions about everything from kitten food to collars to catnip.

The shelves, stocked with organic kitty litter and natural odor remover as well as grain-free beef and lamb dog dinners, are plastered with notes directly from Levy, alerting customers to safety and health concerns (wood shavings, one advises, should not be used as bedding for weaning pups). Local animal rescues set up adoption drives in the stores, under giant photos of Great Danes and guinea pigs that have successfully found homes.

The Clean, Well-Coiffed Canine

A different reason brought first-time customer Casey Barrera of Richmond to her local Pet Food Express: She needed to scrub the mud off Oso, her new shepherd-Rottweiler mix, after an afternoon romp at Point Isabel Dog Park. Pet Food Express provides do-it-yourself dog baths, which function much like do-it-yourself car washes. After depositing coins to turn on low-pressure water hoses, customers get squirts of orange peel essence or aloe vera shampoo to alleviate that wet dog smell. (Sweet scents are especially nice, it seems, after a dog-skunk tangle.)

“Oso was afraid of stores, anything with automatic doors,” says Barrera. “So I had to carry his 95 pounds through the front door and then lift him into the tub.” The challenge didn’t end there; like many dogs, Oso only grudgingly tolerates baths. But once the water started flowing, he hunkered down and allowed Barrera to lather him up.

Later, feeling a little guilty about subjecting her pet to the torments of soap and water, Barrera bought him a little reward—some rawhide chews, a beef stick, and a big beefy bone, which he immediately buried in the backyard.

For those unsure of their canine bathing capabilities, there’s Emeryville’s All About the Dogue salon, where skilled professionals do the dirty work. A good grooming isn’t just a luxury, says founder Lena Swann, a former veterinary student—it can be just as vital to an animal’s health as a good diet. A full-service salon, All About the Dogue offers “pawdi-cures,” ear cleaning, deep conditioning treatments, blueberry facials, and complete blow/fluff dry services. Owners can also take classes to learn how to keep their dogs clean and shiny between visits.

During her days in veterinary school, Swann says, she found the realities of an animal emergency room disheartening. “One day, I just picked up a brush and started brushing a poodle in the ER,” she says. “They didn’t think this dog would ever go home, but, with a little sprucing, he actually did. I’ll be forever convinced that this dog had given up because he felt ugly and unloved, but that little bit of attention gave him a little hope.”

All About the Dogue strives to treat dogs with the same care and tenderness that a human salon gives its customers—so much so that pet owners often ask if they can get their hair done as well. “It really makes a difference in the relationship between a dog and a person,” says Swann. “When a dog’s getting booted off the bed for being dirty, he feels ugly and dirty. When the dog’s clean, then people are all, ‘Get up on the bed with me!’”

Beyond Tabby and Fido

Those who own exotic animals sometimes find that larger pet stores, which cater to the needs of dogs and cats, don’t carry more unique creature comforts. That’s where the small specialty store comes in. Bird lovers, for example, flock to Your Basic Bird in Berkeley or Feathered Follies in Concord, while fish fans congregate at the Albany Aquarium in Albany or Connie’s Tropical Fish in Castro Valley. For bunnies, guinea pigs, and other fuzzy pocket pets, there’s RabbitEars in El Cerrito.

“People in the Bay Area care a lot more about animals,” says RabbitEars owner Judy Hardin. As a child in rural Texas, Hardin fell in love with a 4H project named “Blackie,” and soon promoted the bunny to pet status. A volunteer for years with the national House Rabbit Society, Hardin founded RabbitEars, a rescue center for domesticated rabbits (which, Hardin stresses, can’t fend for themselves in the wild), in 2005.

At first glance, RabbitEars looks like a typical pet shop, with stacks of plastic hamster balls, chew toys, and coconut mats, the air heavy with the smell of fresh-cut hay and alfalfa. But Hardin’s primary interest is the welfare of her resident animals, which all come from local shelters. The heart of the center is really the back room devoted to large wall-to-wall pens, big spacious corrals where wiggle-nosed guinea pigs and lop-eared bunnies have the freedom to stretch and explore.

Although Hardin deplores the high number of homeless rabbits—after cats and dogs, rabbits are the nation’s most frequently abandoned pet—she won’t let just anyone take one home. “If someone wants to adopt, we ask all sorts of questions,” she says. “‘Where will you keep your rabbit? Who’s going to be responsible for him?’ We won’t adopt to someone who’s planning to keep the rabbit outside in a hutch. If you want to get a rabbit for your 5-year-old, we won’t adopt; that’s too young.”

On the opposite end of the snuggle-bunny spectrum, the East Bay Vivarium appeals to an even more specialized clientele. Here, in an old warehouse near the Fourth Street shopping district in Berkeley, the air is muggy and moist, shrill with the relentless chirping of crickets. Heat lamps bear down on glass cases containing whip scorpions, Burmese pythons, and spurred tortoises.

The Vivarium sells everything you need to keep a cold-blooded critter happy, including meal makings—which is to say, live crickets, live mice, and the like. In a tank as big as a Volkswagen, an alligator-sized monitor lolls in the crotch of a tree; a label pasted on the glass says he’s “Elmo the Eviscerator.” With his evil-looking claws, it’s not hard to imagine how he got the name.

But Elmo turns out to be a gentle giant, one that Owen Maercks, who co-owns the Vivarium with business partner John Emberton, carts around to local schools to dispel the misconceptions that still surround the reptile species. (Maercks was dumbfounded recently when someone claimed to have seen a hoop snake, a mythological creature that supposedly grabs its tail in its mouth and rolls along like a hoop.)

“Cats and dogs are basically surrogate children,” says Maercks. “But with reptiles, we can enter a world totally alien to us as mammals. Their very non-humanness appeals to people with adventurous minds.”

For many years, reptiles have been the major growth segment in the national pet market—a trend that’s certainly reflected at the Vivarium. Employees here are lifelong reptile hobbyists with a high level of expertise. And unlike commercial chains, the Vivarium breeds most of its own reptile stock, a greener alternative to capturing them in the wild—and, staff members say, it guarantees buyers a better animal.

“Reptiles are growing in popularity everywhere but especially in the Bay Area because, well, it’s the Bay Area, man,” says Maercks, commenting on the region’s much-touted reputation for eccentricity and independence in all things—even household pets. “I don’t think you’d find a 40-year-old reptile store anywhere else in the country.”

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