When we found out about the fire at Pet World, so many of us in and around Lawrence rushed to the scene or to the many scenes in our minds of this sacred animal-human wonderland. When my kids were growing up, I took them there weekly or more often if I needed to hold a bunny to deal with the stress of big messes, not enough sleep, and all manner of infant, toddler, young child and older child mayhem. I carried my children in front packs, back backs, strollers, then simply held their hand as we rounded the display of ferrets, or delighted in the love birds singing.
I wasn’t alone. Many families did the same, including families of myriad shapes. I often saw people in wheelchairs or with developmental disabilities in the store, being led from furry thing to furry thing by their caregivers or family members. Dogs, even my own who had a habit of peeing on the dog treats near the cash register, frequented the store as often as humans. Bus loads of school kids came as did elders in the neighborhood. For my own family, these trips morphed into pet-obtaining excursions too, especially for my daughter Natalie who fell in love with amphibians. We had lizards of all manner, Australian and then red-eyed tree frogs, newts, and expanding to mammals, dwarf hamsters.
I didn’t realize until recently how I took for granted that we were allowed to hold the animals at Pet World, something I realize now isn’t common for pet stores. In Pet World owner Sherry Emerson’s very moving statement about the fire — which tragically killed almost all the mammals, all the birds, some snakes, reptiles and fish — she writes of her co-owner husband:
Tim can never forget how he felt as a child when he and his young friends were refused entry to their local pet store and not allowed to hold the animals. He knows that the total separation of humans and animals will ultimately lead to the disconnection of humans and nature. We truly believe in our mission.
So does our community. Last night, hundreds gathered for a candlelight vigil for the animals lost. The crowd was anything but vigil-like: there were scatterings of baby strollers with shrieking babies, many people with disabilities being wheeled or led around, piles of kids of all ages, some laughing with friends, and some standing quietly, crying. The community support throughout the week has been mind-beautifyingly powerful, from the veterinarians who rushed to the scene alongside past and present employees, friends, and even employees at a nearby store, as Marilyn Naron writes so eloquently about here along with what Pet World meant to her and so many of us:
When Greg and I went to Westlake Ace Garden Center this afternoon to buy tomato cages, we did not know that a fire had broken out at their neighbor across the street, Pet World Lawrence. Pet World is a beloved institution here – a caring, 27-year-old business that is more animal education center than retail store. The staff will talk to you passionately about the needs of tiny tropical fish. An ancient double yellow-headed parrot, Fletcher, hangs out overhead. People bring their kids to watch the rabbits play and to watch the giant python, Goliath, eat (not the rabbits).
Today the firefighters tried to save as many animals as possible, but the news was awful – none of the guinea pigs, rabbits, chinchillas, gerbils, mice, parakeets, cockatiels, or other birds had survived, including Fletcher. But the reptiles did. Pet World staff began running across the street to the garden center, each of them carrying soot-covered turtles and lizards. I watched the garden employees drop everything to create a sort of reptile triage; they rushed to pull planters and pots off the shelves, filled them, and then used their hoses to spray each stunned turtle back to life. Staff from both stores were crying and hugging and doing what they could. It was a sad day in Lawrence, but still. Good neighbors. (And Goliath made it out.)
Pet World will, thankfully, and thanks to so many children who encouraged the Emersons, rebuild. Sherry writes in the official statement:
We have been blessed with the ability to connect children to nature. That’s what matters most to us. We feel, as responsible stewards, that this is our calling and we will continue to answer it. We have two choices in life: surrender or fight. For us, surrender is not an option. We thank you for your patience, kindness, and support, and look forward to seeing you again soon.
I’m so proud of my community and this business for upholding the essential connection we human animals have and need to have with other creatures. Thank you especially to Pet World.