Who cares about the doggie in the window when you can take home a banana-tree frog? : Feldman Is Something of a Pet-Food Pritikin

The really good stuff at the California Pet Center is on the back wall.

That's where owner Howard Feldman keeps the creatures that look like they just crawled out of a swamp.

They are the animals that boys prefer, the ones that make girls pay close attention before they say, "Ick!" Snakes, lizards, frogs, mice, turtles, tarantulas--anything that gives the lie to the primacy of cute.

For reasons that are probably best left unprobed, I share that adolescent male weakness for living things that scrape along the ground, have red, pinwheel or compound eyes and sough like movie monsters when they breathe.

I like animals that screech and don't lick your face.

Who cares about the doggie in the window when, for $19.99, you can take home a banana-tree frog? There's one in Feldman's Woodland Hills shop now, clinging to the front of its aquarium, looking like a shucked oyster with a good personality.

There's a bonus. It barks.

Feldman also sells hermit crabs. These crustacean Quasimodos used to be a very hot item. Now they are semipopular with the crowd that has the urge to name something but wants change back on a five-dollar bill.

"They can be a good pet," said Feldman, a compact, soft-spoken man of 34. "They're clean, they don't shed, they don't get fleas and they don't bark. But they're not as affectionate as some other things. Crabs have their limits."

Feldman, who has an English springer spaniel named Winston, is obviously not a rodent kind of a guy.

When I was growing up, pets were expected to have limits. They were animals, after all. If you wanted intimate contact with another living thing, you could hit your sister. You didn't turn to your iguana and make emotional demands.

People taught you about love. A pet's primary job was to teach you to be responsible, something you could only learn, my parents apparently believed, through hard duty on the guano detail. Once my father brought home 22 pairs of Javanese finches. My siblings and I were delighted at first. But we got so responsible after a week of changing papers under the gorgeous things that we cranked up and whined nonstop until he took all 44 of the filthy little beasts back whence they came.

A pet's other job was to make you grateful that you were born human and not a box turtle, even if you didn't have your own room.

One of the things your pet wasn't supposed to do was rip your heart out, which was why we had more boas than cocker spaniels.

I've seen men of 45--albeit men of 45 with a pitcher of margaritas in them--weep shamelessly over the death of Rover a third of a century ago. But it is almost impossible to become clinically depressed over the demise of a creature, however beloved, that can be buried in a matchbox under the swing set. And nobody was ever permanently traumatized by the passing of his or her pet possum, creatures as mean and ugly as Original Sin.

That, combined with a conviction that it's foolish to invest heavily to toilet train anything that won't eventually be able to hold up its end of the conversation, is why my own child had as pets a garter snake or two and a steady procession of goldfish. I like to think the latter taught him an invaluable life lesson: Never go belly up in the bowl.

Feldman sells a lot of $200 anacondas to people like me.

Feldman's is a full-service pet store that stocks everything from hamsters to Four Paws brand "sanitary pads for dogs in season." Not quite everything. He carries plastic aquarium plants but no fish. He got rid of his last neon tetra a month ago, choosing not to compete with the dozens of shops in the Valley that specialize in tropical fish.

Feldman prides himself on his locally bred dogs and captive-bred reptiles and amphibians. Should something go wrong with a locally bred animal, you can turn to the breeder for additional information, he points out.

But Feldman's real forte, he says, is pet nutrition. He believes you are what you eat even if you're a collie.

Feldman is something of a pet-food Pritikin. He stocks no sugar-laden doggie treats, no bleached bones. He thinks most "senior dogs," as he likes to call them, eat too much salt, too much fat and too much protein. Graying basset hounds and beagles, in particular, have to cut back if they want to keep their puppyish waistlines because, he notes, "they like to eat and roll over."

Feldman alerts bird owners to the potential perils of sunflower seeds. "They contain a lot of fat and can cause hyperactivity and eye problems," he says. He also urges customers to get their budgies off the sauce. "It's fun to watch them get drunk," he said. "They'll hang upside down. They'll fall off the perch. But birds get addicted to alcohol."

The backbone of Feldman's trade, however, is dog food. He estimates that he sells four tons of one popular nutritionally balanced brand a month. "It's a dog food area," Feldman says of Woodland Hills, something all of us who have walked through Warner Park already knew. The shop delivers, and Feldman plans to expand his canine culinary trade to include catered birthday and whelping parties.

As we talk, a young blond woman enters the store and heads straight for the rodents. "You're cute rats, aren't you?" she coos.

A girl after my own heart.

Wait till she spots the banana-tree frog.

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