My children got to watch Butchy, an Oak Cliff ‘sugar glider’, fly.
Well, technically a petite gliding possum that’d been hiding in what looked like a light brown sock in a tall metal cage at the pet store called Wonderland Tropicals on Jefferson Ave. in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Cesar Valdez, the owner, had noticed my five- and eight- year-olds staring at the hanging tan cloth bundle and asked if they wanted to see what was inside.
They’re kids, so of course they did.
It’s the type of moment that Cesar lives for – showing curious children and their adults just how magnificent tame animals can be. It’s why he bought the store from original owner Tom Louis back in 2000 in the first place, to share his passion for tiny creatures with his Oak Cliff neighbors and anyone else asking. Of course, at the time he only fell in love with the animal half of the store since the other half was actually dedicated to selling antiques back then.
But not anymore.
Now 100% of this Wonderland is dedicated to showcasing every potential pet you can think of: kittens, puppies, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, parrots, fish, lizards, snakes, frogs, and canaries. And they’re all displayed in a way that makes them easy for Cesar and his staff to show them off and explain how they thrive. There’s nothing he loves more than to hand an interested buyer one of his furry, slimy, feathery or spiky friends while he explains exactly what it needs to flourish.
My kids love to feed the fish.
When we first met Cesar on a cricket buying expedition for our anole lizards, he brought my family and I over to the store’s indoor pool that’s home to dozens of Japanese Koi. Nuggets of fish food fill the bubble-gum machine next to it, and for a quarter you can experience the thrill of making an extra-wide tub-full of energetic and oversized foreign goldfish extremely happy. My kids can’t believe such a thing is even possible.
And then there’s Delilah.
She’s Cesar’s baby, the tamest and friendliest German shepherd you’ll ever meet. It’s actually her store, too, and there’s nothing Delilah loves to do more than walk the aisles and teach us humans how to properly scratch behind a canine’s itchy ears.
It’s hard to get that kind of attention at a retail chain.
In fact, Cesar points out that it’s difficult to find anyone making $8 an hour at a franchise store with a minimum stake in the enterprise’s success who’s willing to give their customers as much love and insight into pet owning and understanding as someone like him, who’s dedicated his entire life to it.
Even Butchy the sugar glider knows it.
He shows no fear as he emerges from his sock and leaps from the top edge of the cage, gliding softly onto Cesar’s outstretched arm. My kids give them a spontaneous applause break and start to ask questions about Butchy’s diet. As Cesar explains why high protein snacks like mealworms, crickets, and even a scrambled egg are the best, my two favorite children learn something they didn’t know about.
And that’s why we keep going back – not just to buy, but to visit.
Wonderland Tropicals isn’t one of those stores that gets angry if you walk in and don’t purchase something. They’re from an earlier time, back when mom and pop stores were the norm. Cesar the owner believes it’s his job to be right there to greet you and to get you started with whatever animal-based connection you’re looking to start. And until you’re ready to take that step, he makes it his other job to welcome you into his Oak Cliff abode and introduce you to all of his warm and cold blooded friends.
If you’re in the neighborhood stop by, feed some Koi and say hello to Cesar, Delilah and Butchy. You never know what kind of relationship you might get started.
- Mike Lukas
A shorter version of this article was recently published in the Oak Cliff Advocate magazine.
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