Weasels, fox, squirrels, bats, toucans, macaws, cockatoos, iguanas, caimans, donkeys, pigs and a variety of reptiles: Kitty Collins, owner and operator of 49er Pet Store, has worked with them all and, of course, dogs, cats, guinea pigs and rabbits.
Kitty, owner of the Southwest Boulevard flagship store, learned the business from the ground up. In this case, scooping up after animals at the old location on East Cotati Ave. right next to the railroad tracks.
Involved with 49er Pet for forty years, Kitty began her pet career in a bird store in Padre Center. She joined the 49er team in 1979, a wholesale and retail outlet. The railroad actually delivered pet food right to the business and Kitty had the unique opportunity to unload the bags right off the train.
Most memorable, a pig called Rosie, romped around the business floor. At one point, Rosie got her ears pierced. Once in a while, Kitty and other employees would have to track down Rosie somewhere along East Cotati Ave. So, it was not surprising to hear that Rosie had been sent to obedience class.
And that story brought Kitty to another vivid memory about pot bellied pigs. They were legal in Cotati but not in Rohnert Park. But when pot bellied pigs became the new fad, Kitty helped lobby to have an ordinance passed to make them legal in Rohnert Park. And then they had to have rabies and other shots and be licensed.
How did Kitty get here? A Mill Valley girl and a Tamalpais High graduate, she and her husband would attend the Santa Rosa Fair. And her husband told her that was about as close to Oregon as they were going to go. So, in 1973 they bought a home in what was then called Holiday Park but is more commonly known today as “L” section.
Where did this love of animals come from? As a child, Kitty would just bring animals home. She always had a dog and a cat around. Once she rescued an injured blue jay, and it lingered in the neighborhood and around Kitty’s house after it had healed. The blue jay met a tragic end, however, as some neighbors often allowed it to drink alcohol. It came home after imbibing, only to die after a toilet seat had crashed on to it.
Kitty continued working at 49er Pet Store when it moved from East Cotati Ave. to its current location on the corner of Southwest Boulevard and Adrian Avenue in 1992. A year later, she bought the business. A scary proposition to begin with, Kitty’s husband had just retired from the phone company, the business has weathered the recession, the dot com competition and many changes in laws that have impacted its sales.
Kitty employs ten workers, retail clerks and groomers. She works closely with the store clerks but leaves the groomers to their expertise. She believes that the groomers all have care skills that the animals can sense.
Her employees say there is a strong feeling of family in the store. Amy Guiles, an eleven-year clerk, said, “Kitty treats me like family. She is there when you need her most and she understands when I have to take care of my family.”
Tammy Martin worked for Kitty for 19 years and then moved to Oregon. When she moved back, Tammy knew right where she was going to work. She offered, “I’ve known Kitty since I was 7 years old, and she is like a mother to me.” Both Tammy and Amy agreed about working at 49er: “It’s like a family.”
And speaking of family, Kitty told how her own family is part of the business. Since her husband retired, he has become the househusband so that she can concentrate on the business. Kitty has two daughters who have worked in the business. Cassandra Collins Fruzza began as a junior in high school. Today, she does the books and helps with the customers. And Kimberly Collins Perry takes care of the wholesale end of things and goes on buying trips.
49er no longer sells some kinds of animals. Fish and reptiles brought in customers but were expensive to handle, too labor intensive. And as of January 2019 a new ordinance prohibited the sales of rabbits along with cats and dogs in pet stores.
For some years the animal shelter brought in animals for adoption. And customers could purchase licenses while adopting their new pets. But the adoption work became another labor-intensive issue and so is no longer done. The store stopped selling city licenses in the fall of 2018.
On Sundays, 49er Pet hosts the Mobile Vet Clinic as it has been doing the past 25 years. People can bring their animals in for vaccinations and blood work.
Kitty Collins was a familiar name at the city council meetings. For 15 years she was a self-appointed watchdog. She wanted to know what the council was doing with the money of the citizens. She served on a committee of the master plan.
Kitty has spent many years volunteering for Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue, mainly as an animal foster parent. Of the organization, she said, “The Sonoma County Wildlife Rescue is a wonderful organization that really does great things. They get animals back out in the wild where they belong.”
Kitty has represented the store in Founder’s Day Parades. Most memorable in her chicken costume riding on the back of her golf cart bearing the signs “49er Feed and Pet Supply,” the chicken Kitty sat on a seat-sized baseball glove the year the theme was “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
Kitty and her husband have always been a part of the community. For example, during the great Rohnert Park flood of 1982, they took their aluminum boat down to the west end of the Expressway to help ferry those who were stranded.
Time, two back surgeries and a knee replacement have not stopped Kitty. When asked about retirement or selling the business, she says, “I’m going to continue as long as I can. I love it; it’s my passion.”