Saddles, snakes and skunks: Aspen pet shop has seen it all
July 20, 2005
Coming into Aspen amid heavy traffic, suffocating exhaust fumes and construction work, it’s easy to forget the town’s old days.What helps, perhaps, is to look at Aspen’s constants, such as businesses that persevere through all. One such establishment is the Rocky Mountain Pet Shop, a small, funky store on Monarch Street that is celebrating 35 years of business.Of course, it hasn’t always been a pet shop, per se, said owner Ross Ettlin. When it opened, the business catered mostly to ranchers and their horses.”It was certainly a different shop back then. Of course, everything was,” Ettlin said.The business has since swapped saddles for snakes, and hay for Newman’s Own Organic Dog Food, the shop’s bestselling canine grub, he said.
Ettlin, who took over the business five years ago, said owning the Rocky Mountain Pet Shop is his dream job. Growing up in Maryland, he constantly foraged in the woods near the country club that his father managed for any animal he could find.”All I did every day in the summer was walk in the woods, find snakes, turtles, frogs and bring them home and take them back again,” he said.Along with a love for animals, “I always wanted to own my own business and not work for the man. I couldn’t have dreamed to actually be doing this because it’s so farfetched.”Also farfetched are some of the requests Ettlin receives from customers.”I get people asking for weird stuff,” he said. “I had this guy who was doing a photo shoot and he wanted 50 quail, any kind of elk or deer, any kind of local wildlife. He wanted porcupines, skunk, anything I could get. I told him to check out T Lazy 7 [Ranch].”Others believe he should know every answer about every possible species of pet – “like you have a master’s degree in pet-shop ownership.”
A medium-priced pet shop in Aspen has its own set of unique problems. Some customers come into his shop expecting “foo-foo” items, and others, believing his prices to be too high, think they can save a buck or two downvalley.”I’m in this weird, little in-between zone,” he said. “But I’ve carved out this little niche.””It’s a locals’ shop, bro,” said customer Ryan Cook of Aspen. “Everything I need he can get.”Picking up supplies for his aquarium, he paused long enough to admire a couple of dwarf powder blue gouramis, a colorful fish with large eyes. Next to the name of each fish was a hand-written description of its temperament. The gourami is a “semi-aggressive” type.Fish were what led Ettlin into owning Rocky Mountain Pet Shop. After moving to the valley, he and a friend started a tropical fish maintenance business in their spare time. They serviced and set up tanks up and down the valley.”One of my customers up on Red Mountain told me one day, ‘You know, the pet shop’s for sale. You oughta buy that thing, you’d really be good at it.’ It kind of planted the seed,” he said.
The pet shop is the only place in Aspen where one can get a behavior-modification product for dogs (it’s made with a “dog-appeasing” pheromone produced by mother pooches) and the Thing In a Bag for cats (“It’s Alive! Cats can’t resist!”). Ettlin said his business philosophy is simple.”I like to be friendly and help people out, and that seems to work,” he said. “I know I’ll never get rich running this pet shop and so I don’t try. I try to make a living, I have a simple life and I don’t need a whole lot.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org