NEW PORT RICHEY — Phil Gonthier has been bitten, scratched and urinated on — and that's just by his friends.
No matter. Love wins, even if you get nipped in the process.
"I love this business!" Gonthier said. "It's in my blood, and I'm pretty good at it."
The business is Mr. Weebee's Pet World, a retail pet shop on State Road 54 with the unusual distinction of breeding most of its animals, including rabbits, snakes, birds, guinea pigs and rats. The breeding areas behind the shop are open to the public, making a trip to the pet store a potential education.
"If the rabbits are out there copulating," said Gonthier, "we're not going to stop them."
Gonthier, 45, is direct when he talks about the intimate lives of his inventory, though he has an occasional tendency to blush.
Female rabbits? They can have a not-in-my-backyard attitude, so he puts them in the male rabbits' cages during breeding. "She says, 'This is my house,' " he said, " 'and you're not going to come in here with me.' "
Lovebirds? The dominant parents, the sort of prom king and queen of the colony, get their choice of the best digs. "She will pick out the box she's most comfortable with, and they'll go in there and work that box," he said. "The rest of them will then take what they can get."
Rats? They have a 22-day gestation period. "Rats are phenomenal! You wouldn't believe how much they produce," he said. "You have to slow them down."
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Gonthier's education in these matters started when he was a boy, growing up on a 20-acre farm off Ranch Road.
His father was a plumber, but they also raised pigs, goats, chickens and geese. A neighbor who worked for a local developer often brought them injured animals they found at construction sites. Gonthier and his mother nursed them back to health.
Gonthier started out as a plumber, just like his father. But he and his wife, Sharon, got a couple of pairs of birds about 25 years ago. That's when they caught the breeding bug. A handful of birds turned into 80 pairs — and a profitable side job as wholesale breeders. They even branched off into snakes and lizards.
Then 2004 brought Hurricane Jeanne, which took the roof off the shed where they kept the creatures. Some of the birds were crushed to death by debris.
But the destruction made Gonthier realize he wanted to make working with animals a full-time venture. So four years ago, he quit his job, and he and his wife invested $15,000 into opening a pet shop with animals they bred.
"We breed what breeds easily and freely and is most profitable," he said. That means pretty much all the animals he sells except for the fish and iguanas, which are cheaper to buy from other breeders.
Raising a better pet
They called the store Mr. Weebee's Pet World, a name that came straight from the mouth of one of their parakeets. (The bird had been listening to a Three Stooges rerun on television, heard Curly do his "wee bee bee" and repeated it to the Gonthiers.)
The store soon outgrew its space on Trouble Creek Road and late last year, Gonthier invested another $40,000 into their new home on State Road 54.
Here they have more than 10,000 square feet of display and breeding areas, including a water garden, an aviary and a koi pond.
The economy plus the capital investment means Gonthier isn't making money right now. But he's hopeful he has something unique.
Indeed, the breeding center does make Mr. Weebee's stand out among pet stores, experts say.
"It's unusual for pet stores to breed their own animals," said Michael Maddox, director of legislative affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, which represents breeders, distributors and retailers.
"It takes a certain expertise to maintain the animals," he said. "It takes another expertise to breed them."
What's the advantage of breeding your own animals? Gonthier said he knows they're coming from a safe and happy place.
He also thinks they tend to be more sociable creatures, too, because they grow up in the public eye. He often lets customers hold baby rabbits or birds.
"The more people we hand them off to," he said, "the friendlier they are."
A lively, loving bunch
One recent day, Gonthier walked into the aviary, taking note of the "retired" birds around him. They aren't required to do anything but look pretty, but some of them aren't ready to call it quits.
"Some of these birds in here are 20 years old and they're still having babies," he said. "They are producing, but they're in a retirement facility."
He picked up Dakota, a Quaker Parrot that perched on his arm and started gently pinching Gonthier's skin.
"Don't be mean!" Gonthier said, in singsong.
He put Dakota back on his perch. "That's his girlfriend, Renee," he said, nodding toward another. "And she's mean."
Gonthier and his wife have been unable to have children. In some ways, all these babies are filling that role, he said.
"These," he said, "are my kids."
And kids can break your heart. Or maybe something else.
Gonthier picked up a blue and gold macaw named Big Bird and admired his colors.
"He's capable of snapping your finger off. But he's so used to me, he trusts me," he said. "He doesn't want to hurt me."
Big Bird said nothing as his claws tightened around Gonthier's forearm.
"One day, he will bite me, and it will be hard," Gonthier said. "But it probably won't be hard enough to break a finger."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6247.