On a recent Thursday afternoon at Pet Nebula, Shawn Yearley parcels out live crickets, mealworms and rats to waiting customers and describes how not to thaw a frozen rodent. (Hint: no microwaving.) One customer camps out on the floor with a handful of mice, killing time before soccer practice, while another admires the tarantula selection: 39 spiders from 18 different species. A third customer stops in to grab a bagful of the 20,000 crickets the store goes through each week.
But the store's stash of critters won't be available much longer. Pet Nebula, Missoula's last independent pet shop, will pack up its terrariums on Nov. 5. Its lease at 1916 Brooks Street ends next month. Besides being a veritable food court for exotic pets, the store has been a community hub for reptile aficionados.
"[The customers] all know each other," says owner Jennifer Lundberg DeNeut. "They all run into each other at the store, all talk about the reptiles with each other, compare notes, buy stuff from each other, swap reptiles... They have totally overrun the store, in a good way."
That's how Yearley, Pet Nebula's sole employee and a boa breeder in his off hours, started his job. "He just wouldn't ever leave the store, so I started telling him what to do," DeNeut says.
With DeNeut closing the storefront after eight years as owner, longtime customers worried about how to handle their pets' mealtimes. Pet Nebula is the only local business offering a variety of warm-blooded food options, and a few desperate snake owners were even considering mail-order mice (which are illegal to send under USPS regulations). After overwhelming demand from her customers, DeNeut decided to continue selling rats, crickets, mealworms and supplies as a delivery service.
The trickier issue, however, is how to serve another need in the exotic pet community. Over the years, the store has become a de facto adoption center.
"We've had a pretty much open-door policy," DeNeut says. "If we've got space for them and it's not something crazy like an alligator, then people can drop it off here. I would say that probably 80 percent of the animals in the store now have been previously owned."
Animal Control Officer Filip Panusz says the city shelter is required to accept any animals surrendered there in person, but exotic animals are not its specialty. The Humane Society of Western Montana can sometimes take a reptile if the owner brings it in with its habitat, says employee Kayla Beal, but it prefers "basically most things with fur."
For now, signs around Pet Nebula warn customers never to release their pets into the wild, where they're threatened by cold weather and scared strangers who often mistake harmless snakes for poisonous ones. DeNeut also plans to accept some surrendered animals at her home after the store closes. She'll use a building on her out-of-town property to house her breeding rodent colony, a pair of Kenyan sand boas and a pair of crested geckos, and she says there's room for more critters. But the loss of a central spot in town still means opportunities for resources and education will be limited.
"I don't see [our customers] having that kind of sense of ownership in one of the box stores," DeNeut says. "Which is kind of funny, actually, because a lot of them work at the box stores."