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Friday, August 10, 2012

B & R Pet Shop

Greetings friends,

Another Friday has arrived and we are busy trying to finish our tasks so that we can leave for a short vacation tomorrow.

We have taken care of Mr S and shopped for his groceries, so he is set. I cleaned cages for the critters and have two yummy rats warming up for Victoria and Albert. My daughter and grandkids will check on Mikki and the water bowls for everything while we are gone. All we have left is this blog entry and Anna finishing the Mensa newsletter, the Neva-Mind.

Where are we going you say? Why to the Northern California coast to visit the Mendacino Gardens and then north to the "Ewok Forest" of Giant Redwoods. To the very spot where they filmed The Empire Strikes Back sequences with the little furry guys. All great for photography.

Anna just sent me the Neva-Mind for proofing, so I had better get on to the story quickly.

Today's tale takes place in South Florida in the middle to late 1960's. I was spending more hours at this Pet Shop than I was at home. It was a terrific experience and I met many interesting people in the industry while working there.

B & R Pet Shop: The Almost Perfect Place to Work

If you were a kid who loved animals of all kinds, like I was and still am, then you would have been thrilled to be allowed to work in a pet shop for free, like I did back in 1965.

B & R stood for Bernice and Roger, and the entire family was part of the business, although of their three children, only Tom, the oldest son, wanted to be there at all. The other two, an older sister who did not even admit to being related to people who "fooled" with animals, and a younger brother who was not 100% mentally (I don't know what is problem was) and was at home most of the time.

Roger was a small, quiet, dark haired man with a neatly trimmed beard, who never said much and was really good at handling the animals. He was very shy with customers, so much so, that many of them mistakenly thought that he didn't know anything about the creatures that he sold. They could not have been more wrong. Roger was a walking encyclopedia on fish and knew birds better than anyone that I have ever met. He was familiar with mammals and had a working knowledge of reptiles and amphibians, although he admitted that Tom and myself were better in those categories than he was. He also worked another job during the day, installing windows; small pet stores are a notoriously hard way to make a living and quite often keep their owners on the brink of "starvation" and collapse.

Bernice was the complete opposite of Roger in every way. She was tall, blonde, and voluptuous, and hated wearing clothes, (she wore as little as possible most of the time). If you had to go to their house, it could be a startling experience. If you were lucky, she was wearing a slinky dressing gown and her funny looking shoes that had high heels and a fuzzy ball on top of the toes, and sometimes one of those feather boas around her neck. Other times she would just be wearing the shoes and a smile. Both she and Roger were in their late 50's and time had not been kind with her looks, if you know what I mean. She wore more make up than a clown at the circus and it freaked me out a little. I hated it when she would hug me and get the stuff on my face and shirt.

Bernice was a showgirl from New York City and had performed in Broadway shows in the chorus lines and dancing parts, and never quite left the stage mentally (Tom said that she had a mental breakdown). She also could barely tell a dog from a cat and was no help with the animals at all. She was really fond of a gift that Roger had given her for one of their anniversaries, an Arowana fish that was silver and over 12 inches long and still growing. It lived in a 55 gallon aquarium in their living room and Bernice would dance around the room and sing to it when she got the notion to, which could be anytime, anytime at all.

Tom said that one night about 2am, he heard a commotion in the house and immediately checked his snake cages for escapees and finding that all of his deadly beauties were home, grabbed his pistol thinking that they had an intruder. It was his mother, dancing around the living room in her birthday suit, with a red feather boa around her neck, singing to the fish. He woke his father up, who slept like a rock, and Roger was able to get her to go back to bed. Life in that house was never dull.

Being the only one with a serious working knowledge of animals and business, was hard on Tom who was just 18 and finishing his senior year of high school, and spending all of his free time running the pet store. He was about 5' 9" and scrawny, but very strong, and had blond hair and blue eyes like his mother, but was quiet like his dad. His faced was scarred badly from years of severe acne which had finally gone away, but had taken their toll on his appearance and his self esteem. He could hold his own with customers and knew animals and their care so well, that other stores and even some vets would call him for advice on exotic animals. But let a girl speak to him directly, about something other than animals, and the boy couldn't function. He would stutter and look anywhere but at them and turn red, especially his ears. A couple of times I suspected that girls were coming in with their friends just to pick on Tom and make his ears turn bright red, just to see it happen and laugh at him.

Tom and I were good friends, in spite of a six year age difference, and shared a love of reptiles and no fear of animals of any kind. We spent many, many days working together in that shop, caring for the animals and discussing reptiles, snakes mostly, and learning from each other. I admired his dedication to caring for animals and saving them when they were in danger. We were called upon several times to rescue animals, or as the person calling usually said to, "Get that damn thing out of here!"

The police would call or come to the store and ask for assistance with exotics, which turned out to be reptiles mostly. They had people for dogs, cats and livestock, but those folks didn't want anything to do with snakes, monkeys, or parrots, etc. Alligators usually were handled by Fish & Game people, unless they were all tied up with other tasks, and then we would get called for that too.

At first it was all done for free, but it got to be such a habit for the city, that a deal was worked out and the store received a "Service call" fee each time we went to their rescue and took a snake out of somebody's car, or monkey off the top of their kitchen cabinets, or the occasional alligator out of their backyard swimming pool.

            Tom had a fixation with poisonous snakes and had a burning desire to own a Cobra of his very own, and may have by now, but at that time had to be content with local deadly varieties. He had Rattlesnakes, Water Moccasins and even an Eastern Coral snake, which has the same neurotoxin type of venom as the Cobra, but was actually the safest of his snakes, as they are rear-fanged and would have to bite you some place very thin, like the web between your thumb and finger and chew to get the venom into you. Not that you would treat them (Coral snakes) casually and risk what would be a potentially fatal bite.

He (Tom) was working on a plan of his own design, to build up immunities to the bite of his beloved nasties and would inject himself with minute amounts of venom regularly to build up his resistance to their poison and would increase the amount on a schedule that he had figured out. I felt like he was flirting with death myself and wanted no part of it.

A year later it "might" have saved his life when he passed out after hitting his head on an open dresser drawer and fell on an aquarium holding an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake and broke the glass, which startled the snake and it bit him on the arm, before escaping the tank and hiding under his bed. Tom always kept the door to his room closed, in case a snake got out somehow, so it couldn't get out of his room and hurt someone else or get away.

I was called upon by Tom (through Roger) to catch his pet and put it in a new tank, since he was in the hospital for a few days recovering from surgery, not from the snake bite, his plan had worked,(maybe, or maybe he got a dry bite). They had to stitch up his head where he banged it, and repair tendons and muscles cut by the broken aquarium glass on his right forearm. He was very lucky to have survived any of it at all.

The store had a few displays and attractions that were there more for show than for sale, although that was not the plan when they acquired these creatures. It is a hazard frequently encountered in the pet store business.

            One display that was bought for the sole purpose of showing and was carefully watched, was their Piranha tanks. One small tank had a single, large red-bellied Piranha in it and the other had six fish in residence. The single fish was timid and you "could" put your hand in the tank with it, and it wouldn't bite unless you chased it around and cornered it. The tank with six in it was a different story altogether! Anything that went into that tank would not come out the same as it went in. You couldn't even use a dip net to retrieve something from the tank, they would destroy it right before your eyes. You had to put a piece of glass in the tank and block them off completely and then put your hand in and pick out whatever it was that some idiot customer had tossed in the tank, "Just to see what would happen..." DUH! People can be so stupid sometimes! Even with the glass in between, it still scared hell out of me to stick my hand in there and have them hit that glass! It made us all flinch when those little buzz-saws with razor blade teeth bit at the glass.We tried not to show it though, because it made the customers (usually young males) want to do it again. And yes, there was a top on the tank, but people would open it to drop things in.

Another purchase that was a special order, and never picked up or paid for by the customer, was an African Green Monkey. This guy was generally well behaved and we got along really well all the time. In fact he was so calm and well mannered that he was allowed out of his cage and would sit on top of it or on one of the padded bar stools that was behind the counter and just eat peanuts or monkey chow pellets or the occasional piece of fruit, (he was usually fed that inside his cage because it was messy).

He would pick up his shells and anything else that was on the floor and hand it to one of us, just like a small child that was trying to be helpful. And he was large for a monkey, about the size of a two year old human baby, but not as heavy. This made it difficult to sell him, because people were afraid of him.

It would seem that he was the perfect pet and good will ambassador for the store except for one little bad habit that we found out about the hard way. He hated black people, especially black boys, and would scream and carry on until one of us would go over and pick him up and comfort him. We figured that it had to do with his memories of being captured in Africa and didn't know how to cure him of this phobia.

We found out what happened if black boys didn't heed his warning and walked towards him, especially if they were loud and laughing. He would reach back behind himself and go to the bathroom in his hand and throw an underhand fastball strike directly to their chests, dead center on the heart every time! If we could only have taught him to throw a baseball instead. He would have thrown a perfect splitter, instead of a messy shi... Oh, never mind.

Among the interesting side activities associated with the Pet business were the trips to the airport and Port Everglades to pick up shipments of animals. The Importer we bought from at the port had a huge warehouse and every kind of animal you could think of came through there. It was there that I learned how mean adult chimpanzees are. A careless worker parked a big cage containing hundreds of squirrel monkeys next to a grown chimp and he grabbed them by the tail as they poked out through the bars and yanked them through a space that was way too small, with the predictable disastrous results. By the time I saw what he was doing there was quite a pile of squirrel monkey skins. All just for meanness.
This was also the place where I saw my first Brazilian Wandering Spider and saw someone get bit by one. It was really scary! I learned at that establishment that if you had enough money, you could have anything you wanted, legal or not. The people were more frightening than the animals by far.

Once Tom got himself in a big mess and was about to go to jail for refusing to obey draft orders. He believed that killing another human being was wrong and he could not be part of that. He was one of the very few real Conscientious Objectors that I had ever known. Remember the pistol that he carried out of his bedroom to check for burglars? He didn't even own any bullets! It was a bluff! He could have gotten his snake kissing butt killed, carrying an unloaded gun!

Tom was color blind and deaf in one ear, and had that damaged right arm and could have gotten a draft deferment, but he wanted to make a statement and stand up for his beliefs, not hide behind his infirmities as he put it. So he defied the order to report for processing and went before the judge and had his say and was sentenced to jail time, and fully intended to serve his time. His dad wanted him to go to Canada and continue with his schooling and be safe, (he was afraid of what might happen to him in prison). But Tom wouldn't do it, he wanted to make his stand and be counted.

I always respected Tom for his Integrity and never looked upon him as anything but a brave, intelligent young man standing up for what he believed in, even after I went into the Army and did the things that he wouldn't and couldn't do.

Don't get me wrong, I didn't feel the same way at the time as he did, and I certainly am proud of my fellow Veterans who served their country then, and now as well. But both Tom and I had to have the courage of our convictions and do what we felt was right.

After all these years of thinking about it, I think that what he did took more courage than what I faced in armed confrontation with an enemy. He had to face people that he cared about, family and friends, and deal with their attitudes face to face, every day, at a time where it was considered to be un-American to refuse to serve.

So, what happened? Tom served 30 days (as a privileged trustee) in the Broward County jail for disobeying the judge, during which time he was medically disqualified from service (4F) and the matter was dropped. He was mad that it didn't go to trial and make more of an impact regarding CO's but, we were all glad that he didn't get "real" time, in a "real" prison where he would have gotten hurt.

Roger eventually had to hire a couple of full time employees. He needed to replace me and with Tom being gone for the 30 days and Bernice getting worse, it was a real stretch to stay open, but he managed to do it. Having three members that were basically useless, made life very hard in a family run business.

They lasted several more years but were gone by the mid-1970's when I was in Florida and went by to check on them. It was certainly the friendliest, most helpful Pet Store that I have ever encountered and a well run small business. I often wonder what Roger could have done with an even chance.

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