Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff Photo
Cindra Conison, owner of The Quirky Pet on State Street in Montpelier, grooms “Aria,” one of her three Bergamascos, at the shop recently. Conison sells a wide variety of U.S.-made pet accessories and treats.
MONTPELIER — My daughter turned seven last week, and I did my best to treat her like a princess on her birthday. I began by serving her favorite chunky liver pate for breakfast, and then I gave her a tiny mouse and a jingle-bell. When I went off to work, I opened the window curtains so she could sit in a sunbeam, and in the evening I brushed her hair.
I should explain that my “daughter” is a spoiled 15-pound cat named Twiggy. In the six months since I adopted her, I’ve transformed from an independent person in control of my life into the type who rushes home every evening at 5 to fill up the food bowl and clean the litter box. And forget my toddler nephew and my boyfriend: if I point my camera at anything these days, it’s at Twiggy sitting, standing, exposing her belly, staring into space, licking, scratching, or sleeping.
When I adopted her, I was delighted to have an excuse to visit the Quirky Pet, the shop in downtown Montpelier that’s billed as “the emporium of way cool pet stuff.” Quite possibly echoing the sentiment of every overbearing pet owner who ever lived, I thought, “Well, nobody is more quirky than my cat!” and I marched inside to browse for kitty leashes so we could go for quirky walks together in my neighborhood.
The truth is, though, Twiggy is a pretty normal cat. She adores toy mice and she reacts strongly to catnip. The Quirky Pet sells all sorts of cat-friendly items, as well as typical dog stuff, but to be fair, so does every pet shop — quirky or not.
The shop could be more aptly named the Quirky Pet Parent. Whereas Twiggy – and I’m guessing a lot of other cats and dogs out there — could care less about where her toys and snacks come from, I’m a fairly committed localvore. I’m sure Twiggy would be as happy to chase toy mice from Mongolia as from Montpelier, but I’d prefer to pay a little extra money for environmentally-sensible items produced within a 50-mile radius.
The Quirky Pet’s owner, Cindra Conison, feels much like I do. When she decided to open a cat and dog shop in the summer of 2011, she discovered that many products for animals are made in China. “It really disgusted me,” she said, “so I decided just to narrow the focus to everything made in the USA.” And that means everything, from the Smelly Cat Chews for Litter Box Odor made by Pet Naturals of Essex Junction to the very shelves in the store, which are made of locally-harvested wood.
Apart from the Smelly Cat Chews and several other varieties of healthy snacks, the Quirky Pet doesn’t offer much in the way of cat food. But, oh, the catnip it carries could send all of the felines in Montpelier into drooling fits for weeks. There are fuzzy catnip eyeballs from Burlington, catnip mice, catnip blankets, catnip bubbles, and even a catnip scratching post in the shape of a racecar. I presented this latter item to Twiggy on her birthday and she ripped open the packaging like a junkyard dog. She spent the rest of the evening alternating between feverish scratching sessions and lounging on top of it like a cabaret crooner.
Dogs and their owners have even more to be excited about at the Quirky Pet. At the center of the shop, inside a glass deli case, is a mouthwatering display of dog treats. Some are in the shape of bones; others have orange glaze and look like carrots. Each treat is displayed in the case along with a list of its ingredients, and they look so good that I’ve occasionally been tempted to purchase one for myself. One in particular is cut into the shape of a squirrel and contains peanut butter, carob, yogurt chips, and rye flour.
In addition to these mouth-watering goodies, Conison sells frozen raw dog food. The chicken necks, feet, heart, and marrow bones in her freezer are all from Vermont; and for anyone who’s queasy about handling raw meat, she also keeps a stock of dehydrated Vermont-raised animal parts that don’t contain preservatives or antibiotics. She feeds her three Italian Bergamascos a strictly raw diet. “I don’t preach about it to people,” she said, “but I think that if you’re going to feed your pet food, make sure it’s good quality. Make sure it’s not from China.”
The most mellow of Conison’s Bergamascos, Aria, has become the shop’s unofficial mascot. She’s there almost every day and seems to enjoy waiting for people to pat her fur, which is so thick that it has naturally felted into something like dreadlocks. After noticing that a number of customers were taking pictures of Aria, Conison decided to start charging them; or rather, asking for donations to the Humane Society or Vermont Companion Animal Neutering, a low-cost spay/neuter clinic for cats and dogs.
Conison, who was a substance abuse counselor for 15 years before she opened the shop, admits that owning a business is a daily challenge. “I work six days a week, sometimes seven. If I hired employees, I wouldn’t make any money,” she said. But she has no regrets about her new career. Most rewarding of all are the visits from customers with dogs they’ve rescued from animal shelters. “I’ve seen a lot of dogs that have come from really horrendous situations, and now their homes are amazing,” she said. “It’s always really great to see them.”
And then she said the thing that made me want to start over and open a pet shop of my own: “I get to see puppies. Puppies come in all the time.”
Twiggy could care less about the puppies or the fact that her birthday gifts were all made in Vermont, and she never really took to being put on a leash, but I think she’s as grateful as I am that the Quirky Pet exists.
Marija Zagarins writes Found Downtown, a semi-monthly column about independent businesses in central Vermont.MORE IN Central Vermont
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