If you’ve ever been to Corvallis’ Animal House, you’ve likely met the shop owner, Dale Stepnicka. Stepnicka opened the store in 1983, and has been breeding animals and selling them ever since. Beneath the surface, however, there is much more to the story.
Before opening Animal House, Stepnicka started off as a kung fu instructor in California. Throughout high school he had taken lessons, and when he was a senior he began to teach classes. When he eventually earned his black belt, he found himself teaching classes to both adults and children.
He moved from California to Oregon before starting up his business, and Stepnicka loves it here.
“I love the beauty of Oregon and the people,” he said. “I don’t think I could be in retail this long if I didn’t love the people.”
After that, he found himself in the business of wholesale fish, and even owned a bird ranch. When he realized that wholesale wouldn’t support his wife and two children, he switched to retail, and has been selling pets ever since.
“I’ve loved animals throughout my life, and I love raising them. It’s just a very gratifying hobby,” said Stepnicka.
When asked about his favorite animal, Stepnicka replied that he doesn’t have one, but “once you have a bird in your life, you can’t live without one.”
Stepnicka works around 40 hours a week at Animal House, but that’s not all he does. He also maintains several fish tanks in the area, including a 40,000-gallon shark tank. He visits those tanks for an hour a day, five days a week, and he visits ponds that he cares for three days a week.
“It’s like it’s not work,” he added.
Stepnicka breeds many of his own animals to sell in the store, including goldfish, axolotls, exotic birds, bearded dragons, snakes, and tropical fish. They are born in his house or in his outdoor greenhouses. One of his breeder birds, a Moluccan cockatoo, is estimated to be nearly 65 years old.
Since these animals were raised in his own home, Stepnicka knows they were treated well, not smuggled, are disease-free, and are marketed as the correct species.
“I’ve seen tattooed fish… smuggled birds… birds that were bleached and dyed to look like a more expensive species,” said Stepnicka.
His goldfish are also free of the koi herpes virus. Koi herpes affects all types of goldfish and has an 80 to 90% mortality rate. Stepnicka pulled a huge volume off his bookshelf and opened it to reveal pictures of what the virus can do. It fills the gills with the virus and very quickly suffocates a fish to death.
Every pet store in the area has dealt with this issue—except for Animal House. The reason? The only goldfish that he imports are feeder fish, and they live in their own separate tank.
According to Stepnicka, the hardest part of the job is keeping everything healthy.
“It takes constant diligence. You have to observe everything carefully,” he said.
The Animal House isn’t just a cool store to go and see your favorite animal in. Attention to detail and a rich history make it an ideal outfit for those who love animals and seek that special connection with their retailer.
By Moriah Hoskins