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Many locals know the colorful sales floor of Old Town’s Preuss Pets, flush with squawking birds, colorful fish, energetic hamsters and all manner of reptiles. But there’s more to the store than meets the eye. If you head through a nondescript back door and hang a right, you’ll be met with a blast of muggy, 80 degree heat that’ll remind you of an indoor pool deck. And you’ll be surrounded by fish.
This is the center of the Preuss Pets fish breeding program, where the store’s numerous tanks of unique and rare varieties of fish are stocked.
“Back in 1965, when we got our first fish store, my mother bred angelfish, and she did it rather successfully,” said owner Rick Preuss. “By the early ‘70s, when certain varieties of angels came out on the marketplace, she was one of the first ones to breed them. People came from great distances to find those particular varieties.”
Soon after, the program got another bump forward.
“It was accelerated when a gentleman came on board by the name of Antonio Comas, and he happened to be a veterinarian from Cuba that immigrated here and started our breeding program in a more substantial way,” Preuss said.
Comas began breeding fish in his basement for the store, but when Preuss Pets moved to its Old Town location, space was allocated specifically for Comas. Fast forward 30 years, and Preuss Pets is still at the forefront of retail breeders in the area. Perhaps even in Michigan.
“I doubt that there’s more than a couple stores that actually breed fish at this magnitude,” Preuss said.
Preuss Pets sources fish from around the world, from the tropics to Eastern Europe, so it’s not hard to find something to suit most tastes.
The top three bestsellers among bred fish at the store are guppies, angelfish and betta fish. But when asked exactly how many fish the store breeds in total, Preuss said it is difficult to estimate.
“I wouldn’t know how to begin,” Preuss said. “Just in one tank alone you might have 150 fish.”
Multiply that by a few dozen tanks, and the number easily reaches the high thousands. Yet beyond the scope of the operation, Preuss said there are a few things that set his store apart from big box outlets. The water is one of them. Preuss Pets contains four high-tech and high-volume water reservoirs, the kind that are more common in a brewery than a pet store, that filter the lifeblood that runs through all the tanks.
“The first has reverse osmosis water, so basically what it’s trying to do is just have pure water, and then we reconstitute it to the fish’s needs. That’s almost exclusively what we use for all of our saltwater needs,” Preuss said. “The second and third is something where we take Lansing city water and then we properly condition it and let it sit for at least 24 hours. Then we distribute it throughout the store.”
The final container serves as a reserve salt water barrel.
Preuss Pets’ operation also quarantines and medicates its fish as needed before releasing them to the sales floor. Some fish can be medicated and rehabilitated for over a month before even leaving the room. Fish that perish from sickness are meticulously examined by microscope to ensure that others are being treated properly.
“We do that because it seems logically the only way you could do it if your mission is to offer healthy fish,” Preuss said. “It’s not possible to do it without a microscope in my opinion; a large number of the parasites that affect these fish are only observable by a microscope.”
The risk of a “Trojan fish,” Preuss’ term for a fish that introduces a parasite into other fishes’ habitat, is what keeps him dedicated to ensuring the health of the animals.
“We can confidently sell them such that the customer has the most flawless experience that we can create,” Preuss said.
Yet that flawless experience has to go both ways, in Preuss’ eyes. It’s not enough that the fish are healthy when they leave the store, owners need to be able to take care of them. This is why Preuss considers the store something of an educational endeavor as well.
“I think if there is anything that is our anchor point, it isn’t so much the fish, it’s that with our assistance and guidance, individuals become better pet keepers,” Preuss said. “I think our passion is making that connection. The ability to improve that relationship by just simply sharing with them the know-how.”
Though there are no immediate plans for expanding the breeding program, renovations within the last couple of months have made more room for fish on the sales floor, as well as other aquatic creatures like snails and shrimp.
“We’ve been trying to groom the store constantly to be more accommodating to fish,” Preuss said. “We’re always trying to pay attention to what customers are really interested in and always look for better places, more variety, healthier fish — always raise the bar as high as possible. but right now I’d say we’re really, really, pleased with the selection of fish that we have.”