THURSDAY, April 2 — When nonessential businesses closed all over Michigan because of the coronavirus, panicky customers showed up at the door of Preuss Pets in Old Town, some of them in tears.
They were relieved to learn that a critical source of food, supplies and medicine for their companions, and a trusted source of advice and information, would stay open, at least for now.
Although customers aren’t allowed in the store, Preuss is still offering curbside pickup and delivery of supplies to keep pets fed, warm and safe.
The store’s mission is the same, but its procedures have radically changed.
“A day feels like a week, things are changing so quickly,” Kirbay Preuss said. She helps run the store along with her father, owner Rick Pruess, and her mother, Debbie.
“We were deemed an essential business, kind of a pet grocery store, if you will,” Preuss said.
But the pet “groceries” at Preuss go well beyond conventional dog and cat food.
The live food, including grubs, worms and insects, required by exotic pets, would otherwise be pretty tough to find, at least until spring is underway.
This week, staffers are putting in extra time at the store’s hottest corner, a makeshift “bug bar,” placing live cockroaches and crickets into cardboard tubes for delivery to customers with hungry reptiles and amphibians.
Customer needs are many and varied.
“Some people had heat bulbs burn out, and need a heat source for their reptiles,” Preuss said. (By the way, when you call Preuss, press 7 for reptiles.) Bedding for small rodents and hay for chinchillas and guinea pigs is also in great demand.
Toys for animals might seem like a nonessential item, but not when pets are cooped up with humans for long periods of time.
To help get her customers and their companions through quarantine period, Kirbay Preuss worked with a dog trainer to develop “dog enrichment packs” for homebound pups, with extra labor-intensive bones and puzzle toys, with an aromatic treat inside a brain-teasing outer shell.
“Dogs are going to expend energy on naughty behaviors if they are not able to expend it on something that keeps their brain busy,” Preuss said.
Orders are handled and transferred to customers with maximum care. Staffers wear masks at all times. A large canopy extends about 20 feet from the store entrance to protect customers from the rain, with chalk marks on the asphalt reminding them to keep six feet apart. Thursday, a plexiglass shield was added to separate customers from staffers as they handled orders.
Just outside the canopy looms a formidable social distancing enforcer: a 15-foot-tall swamp monster forged out of sheet metal, holding a flower in its hand.
The staff had to figure out a safe way to service customers experiencing die-offs in their aquariums.
“We are still able to run water tests by transferring their water into one of our cups, with latex gloves on, and help them get the medications they need,” Preuss said.
The staff has also launched Zoom calls with customers and fields questions via phone and Facebook Messenger.
Preuss Pets is unique, even in the crazy-quilt bazaar of Old Town. With a spectacular array of animals, exotic décor and elaborate landscaping features, it’s a tourist destination for all of central Michigan. The store’s staff of 65 is the biggest retail crew in the area.
So far, no one has been laid off, but the staffers are not required to come in and work, other than essential animal care specialists.
“Our biggest priority is keeping our staff safe as an essential business in the community,” Preuss said.
Preuss urged the community to keep on supporting Old Town and downtown businesses.
“A lot of our friends have small businesses and they can’t operate right now,” Pruess said. “Anything customers can do, from buying a gift certificate to posting a positive post on social media, is deeply appreciated.”
Preuss is not ruling out further restrictions on services and hours as the crisis continues.
“We’re taking this day by day,” she said. “There’s a lot of unknowns.”
The store is not only keeping pets healthy and fed, but also shoring up the mental health of the city’s humans by helping to sustain companions many people consider to be part of their family.
Bruce Preuss, the store dog, is on a 6-foot leash, which doubles as a social distancing visual aid.
For now, store is oddly quiet, save for the occasional squawk. There is no one to “ooh” over the coral reefs or “eww” at the tarantulas.
But the phone has been ringing off the hook.
“There’s been countless situations since this thing started where people have called us, just panicking, because they needed help with their pets,” she said. The governor’s recent order limited veterinary clinics to emergency service.
“We’re not a vet clinic and we’re not offering veterinary advice, but the community has a lot of pet questions and we’re trying to help to the best of our ability,” Preuss said.
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