When Debbie Wilkie was a child, she imagined opening a pet store with two tortoises running around.
That dream has come true, at least in part. The Clinton store she owns, Critters & Co. Pet Center, is home to one 50-pound free-range tortoise named Raja. He can be seen wandering the store on a daily basis.
Raja may be the store’s most popular and well-known resident, but like every other critter in the store — scaly, furry, feathered or finned — he’s a rescue animal.
Wilkie has rescued thousands of creatures like the tortoise, but saving little lives can be expensive. To help her out, the community has initiated a fundraiser supporting the beloved hybrid pet store-slash-rescue shelter for the month of November.
Wilkie has owned the business for the past six years and worked there for 20 years before that.
“The store, before I bought it, was not all rescue,” she said. “This is where my heart is. It was a normal pet store back when I was working here. It was me, sneaking in, taking in things where my boss would be like, ‘What are you doing now?’”
Some rescued animals will remain store pets — such as Raja and Spinner, the chinchilla with a neurological disorder — but the majority are eventually rehomed after being taken in and treated for any illness.
Wilkie said she has taken in 6,600 animals since her tenure at the store began. During the spring and summer months, it’s not unusual for her to take in about 25 kittens per month.
Animals also come from a variety of other situations too, such as when couples split up or when tenants abandon them.
In addition, there are some surprise critters that show up unexpectedly in boxes outside the door. One time, it was a snapping turtle in the box.
“It’s never a dull moment in here,” Wilkie said with a laugh.
On top of that, it’s not all kittens and puppies. The store also has birds, snakes and lizards, as well as more unusual creatures like sugar gliders and chinchillas. Besides Raja, there is another smaller tortoise residing in the store named Max — although he isn’t allowed to roam free. Wilkie explained that before coming to the store, he did not receive proper care and will likely stay small for the rest of his life.
Langley resident Deven Gates has adopted three kittens, two rabbits, a cockatoo and a snake from Critters & Co., where her son also happens to be employed.
“It struck me as being hard running a business when you don’t know what’s going to walk through the door, or what financial burden that will bring,” Gates said.
She is leading a GoFundMe campaign for the store to help relieve some of that burden.
“There’s basically a whole community service going on here and no one knows it,” she said. “It’s in many ways a charitable organization operating under the guise of a business.”
Wilkie said most creatures are not healthy when they arrive at her store. She can treat some ailments on her own, but consults nearby South Whidbey Animal Clinic when necessary. A kitten can cost as much as $150 in vet bills, yet is sold to the public for $50 in the store.
“She’s aware that it doesn’t make a lot of business sense. She loves animals,” Gates said. “She’s taking them because they showed up, and she’s just a really good human who does this.”
Wilkie’s most recent charges include a post-op one-eyed rabbit and a recovering two-foot-long koi fish that an otter attempted to catch for dinner.
“I haven’t taken a paycheck from the store,” Wilkie said. “Everything goes back to the animals.”
Gates is hoping to raise $12,000 through the fundraiser, which can be accessed at gofundme.com/f/first-annual-critters-co. As of Thursday night, $1,630 has been donated to the cause.
By starting the fundraiser, she is seeking to bring awareness to the amount of time, effort and money Wilkie puts into treating and rehoming animals in the community.
“These aren’t books, these aren’t raw materials you can just put on a shelf and wait,” Gates said. “These are living creatures and that’s a huge responsibility.”
Cats constantly need litter, and reptiles need bulbs in their heat lamps.
“People coming in and petting kittens doesn’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 low on options if Critters & Co. wasn’t on the South End.”
Wilkie is currently in the process of applying for nonprofit status for her rescue operation.