Gary's Pet Jungle celebrates 20 wild years
This summer, Gary Johnson celebrated two decades of owning his pet and pet supply store, Gary's Pet Jungle, 2857 S. Howell Ave.
Johnson opened the small, jam-packed shop in July 1994. Prior to opening Gary's, he worked for 12 years at Pets 'N' Things in Cudahy and before that he owned a Dunkin' Donuts in Racine.
"After I sold the donut shop, I lived out of the back of my truck for a year until I started needing money again and then I got a job at the pet shop," says Johnson.
Gary's sells supplies for pets as well as freshwater fish (saltwater fish supplies are available but not saltwater fish), turtles, snakes, chinchillas, hedgehogs, tarantulas, gekkos, lizards, hamsters, gerbils, rats, finches, canaries, parakeets, cockatiels and more.
"We carry pretty much everything for every animal," says Johnson.
Gary's sells primarily Fromm Pet Food for dogs – along with Natural Balance and Taste of the Wild – and Earthborn and American Natural cat food.
Johnson grew up about a mile from the O'Hare Airport in Chicago. His neighborhood was very spacious and industrial which allowed Johnson to have a lot of animals including horses, chickens and goats.
"I've always loved animals," he says.
Today, Johnson has only fish at home because he spends so much time at the shop. Johnson lives a block away from the Bay View-based business and, although the neighborhood serves him well, it's not his first choice place to live.
"Actually, I'd prefer the mountains but I can't make a living in the mountains as easily," says Johnson, who is an avid motorcycle rider.
Johnson sells a lot of snakes and rodents from his shop. People – namely parents – often debate over whether or not to buy hamsters or gerbils. Johnson recommends gerbils because hamsters are nocturnal and sometimes get "cranky" when people try to pet them during the day.
"I've been bitten way less by gerbils than hamsters," says Johnson. "But rats make the best pets. They are intelligent and super, super sweet."
So how does Johnson compete with larger chain pet stores?
"I have a small space and a lot of stuff. I try to buy everything when it's on sale and I've been in the business long enough I know where to get super good prices," says Johnson. "A lot of people think box stores are so cheap, but we're actually less expensive on a lot of stuff."
Has a snake ever gotten loose?
"There's one loose right now," says Johnson, laughing. "But I don't have any nasty snakes, so no one has to worry. Sometimes people just don't clamp the lids on tightly enough and they get out. A neighbor found one in his yard."
Johnson has four employees, including Melissa Konkolowski, a junior at Ronald Reagan High School, who had only been on the job for four days.
"But I've been coming here my whole life," says Konkolowski. "My mom always had parakeets. I still have two parakeets, both of which I got here. This is pretty much a dream job for me. Everyone's so friendly and I really love working for a small, family business."
Gary's Pet Jungle is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.
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