CLINTON — When Debbie Wilkie was a kid, she imagined opening a pet store with two turtles running around.
This dream has come true, at least in part. The Clinton store she owns, Critters & Co. Pet Center, is home to a free-roaming 50-pound turtle named Raja. He can be seen wandering around the store daily.
Raja may be the store’s most popular and well-known resident, but like all the other creatures in the store – scaly, furry, feathered or finned – he’s a rescue animal.
Wilkie has saved thousands of turtle-like creatures, but saving small lives can be expensive. To help out, the community has started a fundraiser to support the beloved pet-slash-rescue hybrid shelter for the month of November.
Wilkie has owned the business for six years and worked there for 20 years prior.
“The store, before I bought it, wasn’t just a rescue,” she said. “That’s where my heart is. It was a normal pet store when I worked here. It was me, sneaking around, taking things where my boss would say, ‘What are you doing now?’ ”
Some rescued animals will remain store pets – like Raja and Spinner, the chinchilla with a neurological disorder – but the majority are eventually rehomed after being cared for and treated for any illnesses.
Wilkie said she’s taken in 6,600 animals since she started her tenure at the store. In spring and summer, it is not uncommon for her to welcome around 25 kittens per month.
Animals also come from a variety of other situations, such as when couples break up or when tenants abandon them.
Additionally, there are surprise creatures that unexpectedly appear in boxes outside the door. Once it was a snapping turtle in the box.
“It’s never a dull moment here,” Wilkie said with a laugh.
Besides that, not all of them are kittens and puppies. The store also offers birds, snakes, and lizards, as well as more unusual creatures like sugar gliders and chinchillas. Besides Raja, there is another small turtle residing in the store named Max – although he is not allowed to roam free. Wilkie explained that before coming to the store, he hadn’t received proper care and would likely remain small for the rest of his life.
Langley resident Deven Gates adopted three kittens, two rabbits, a cockatoo and a snake from Critters & Co., where her son is also employed.
“It’s been hard for me to run a business when you don’t know what’s going to come through the door, or what financial burden it’s going to entail,” Gates said.
She’s running a GoFundMe campaign for the store to help ease some of that burden.
“There’s basically a whole community service going on here and nobody knows about it,” she said. “It is in many ways a charity operating under the guise of a business.”
Wilkie said most creatures aren’t healthy when they arrive at his store. She can treat some ailments on her own, but consults the nearby South Whidbey Veterinary Clinic if needed. A kitten can cost up to $150 in vet bills, but is sold to the public for $50 in the store.
“She’s aware that it doesn’t make much business sense. She loves animals,” Gates said. “She takes them because they showed up, and she’s just a really good human doing that.”
Wilkie’s most recent charges include a post-surgery one-eyed rabbit and a recovering two-foot-long koi fish that an otter tried to catch for dinner.
“I didn’t take a paycheck from the store,” Wilkie said. “It’s all about the animals.”
Gates hopes to raise $12,000 through the fundraiser, accessible at gofundme.com/f/first-annual-critters-co. Thursday night, $1,630 was donated to the cause.
By launching the fundraiser, she seeks to raise awareness of the time, effort and money that Wilkie devotes to the treatment and care of animals in the community.
“They’re not books, they’re not raw materials that you can just put on a shelf and wait,” Gates said. “They are living creatures and it’s a huge responsibility.”
Cats constantly need litter and reptiles need bulbs in their heat lamps.
“People who come and pet the kittens don’t pay the bills,” Gates said.
There will likely be other fundraisers to supplement the GoFundMe, such as holiday photo shoots.
As she pointed out, “We’d be pretty out of options if Critters & Co. weren’t in the South End.”
Wilkie is currently in the process of applying for non-profit status for his rescue operation.
“The thing is, at least for me, my heart is in it,” she said. “It’s not just a job for me.”
This story originally appeared in the South Whidbey Record, a sister publication to The Herald.