We probably all know or have met someone who says, “I love my job; it’s my passion.” Call me skeptical. I’ve heard these sentiments so many times it’s hard to believe everyone feels so good about work. Except when I’m in the Animal House, the little blue house that’s home to a pet store. I am truly convinced that owner Dale Stepnicka and his loyal employees all share a collective adoration of animals that far exceeds their work hours.
Stepnicka is obsessed with the animals he breeds, raises, and sells at both Animal House and from his own residence. It started when he was a kid who would do almost anything to add to his collection of pets.
“I used to go around cutting grass just to get money to buy exotic birds,” he said. “I also started working at a big wholesaler down in California that was the major hub of tropical fish coming into the area when I was nine years old.”
His parents would allow him to get all the pets he wanted so long as he bought them himself, maintained them, and paid for everything they required.
“That was the wrong thing to say to me, because I was so into the animals and would work my butt off to get more and more and more.”
Stepnicka was breeding exotic birds for about five years before he moved his family up to Oregon. He realized he couldn’t make a living selling his birds wholesale, so he decided to get into retail. Thus the Animal House was born and has remained for 31 years on SW 4th Street in Corvallis.
The shop is full of more exotic birds, salt and fresh water fish, reptiles, amphibians, spiders, chinchillas, and many other cool, hard to find creatures than you’ll see at any other local pet store.
Stepnicka also raises many animals at home, and admits he’s more than just a store owner and hobbyist.
“I have exotic birds. Over 80 aquariums. Over 160 ponds. I raise reptiles. It’s something that’s engrained in my life. You couldn’t do what I do if you didn’t enjoy it. It’s so much work.”
Manager Robyn Harris has worked at Animal House for 13 years and is equally guilty of loving her job. She says her favorite aspect is that each day offers something new and different. Like Stepnicka, Harris also spends much of her time caring for animals away from the shop.
“I raise cherry shrimp in a tank, and let them do their own thing. I have a cockatoo. I have several other fish tanks in the house. I’m taking home some fish to a revamped tank tonight,” she said with enthusiasm.
The owner and his six employees agree it’s their knowledge of these animals that separates Animal House from other pet stores in the area. Stepnicka prefers his staff be well rounded, and able to give people all the information about the animals they’re buying.
It’s necessary for the crew to do as much research as possible before the new animals arrive, so they will know all of their specific needs in order to raise them.
Long-time employee Robert Gillen said knowledge played a key factor in luring him to seek a job at the shop.
“There were a number of other places that could have had my employment, but Dale’s knowledge and expertise of the exotic animals is why I came here,” he said.
He said he “got hooked deep” in reference to not only his love for Animal House, but also the large variety of animals and setups he owns personally.
“I’m very much into coral propagation and salt water systems. I have plants and ponds. I’ve raised rats and rabbits. I have a six-and-a-half-foot snake, a chameleon. I’m into all of the above, except birds.”
Teaching people how to properly care for these animals while also learning from interactions with the customers are things Gillen loves most about his role in the shop.
“This place is a hot spot for gaining knowledge with conversations about new things, whether it be conservation, new alien species, etc. You know we have OSU faculty, including professors and wildlife and game people, come in and talk about all different experiences in the field, like propagation which I find fascinating,” he said.
No one from Animal House is simply at work for a paycheck, nor are they seeking any recognition for sharing all their knowledge about the rare animals with customers. They are there to make sure the pets are healthy and well cared for before being sold.