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Family business survives harsh Yukon conditions

A passion for sled dogs roped Hans Oettli into the pet store business. For 13 years, the bearded, soft-spoken fellow has operated Duffy's Pets & Tanzilla Harness Supplies.

A passion for sled dogs roped Hans Oettli into the pet store business.

For 13 years, the bearded, soft-spoken fellow has operated Duffy’s Pets & Tanzilla Harness Supplies.

Speaking to him, you get the impression it’s a lifestyle decision.

“I haven’t met a pet store owner that became a millionaire,” says Oettli, leaning back in his chair, chuckling.“I’m not that serious of a business owner.”

The sweet aroma of wood shavings and hay hangs in the air and the soothing twitter of finches, canaries, and lovebirds carries through the store.

Each time a customer enters, the ding of the doorbell is accompanied by a cheerful squawk “Hello,” a friendly greeting from the store’s eight-year-old parrot, Pepe.

“I always try to make work fun,” Oettli continues, smiling.

Twenty-seven years ago, Oettli moved to the Yukon from Switzerland to pursue his passion for sled dogs.

He’d run sled dogs in Switzerland, Austria and Germanyfor many years, but it was not an ideal location for mushing or breeding, he said.

“Sled dogs in Europe has become a rich man’s sport,” Oettli says with a heavy sigh.

Once he’d settled in the Yukon, Oettli got back into his hobby. He also started breeding dogs, and raced in the Yukon Quest twice.

He never finished the race, but his passion for the dogs never diminished.

When the opportunity arose to take ownership of Duffy’s and Tanzilla, Oettli was thrilled. He had never considered owning a pet store, but Tanzilla Harness Supplies was right up his alley, because of his focus on dogsledding.

The two businesses were merged, and Oettli had grown up with pets all his life so the decision was an easy one.

Running the store has been a family affair. In fact, it came easier to some than others.

For years Oettli’s daughter, Emily, bred the guinea pigs in their home for pocket money.

“She started when she was about eight ... it ended with me having 16 guinea pigs at home.”

The demand for pets in the Yukon is pretty constant and can be served by a single pet store.

Duffy’s is that store, providing all rodents, reptiles and birds sought by Yukoners.

But you have to get your cats and dogs somewhere else.

Oettli has never believed in selling these animals in pet stores. Instead, he happily refers his customers to local breeders, the animal shelter and the pound.

Oettli also refuses to deal in exotic animals, like rare breeds of monkeys and wallabies.

Such animals don’t belong way up here in the North, he says.

The Oettli family appears to care about their critters. In fact, Oettli actually screens his customers, treating his animals with the same care as responsible dog breeder would. Which, of course, he is—Oettli breeds Bernese mountain dogs.

If a Duffy’s customer cannot decide between a fish, a bird, a chinchilla, a lizard, or a ferret, they are not pressured into leaving with the most expensive pet; instead, the customer is directed to the book section, provided with precise reading material and asked to come back later.

The patient approach hasn’t hurt business.

In fact, five other pet stores have opened in Whitehorse, but failed after a few seasons.

Duffy’s has outlasted them because of the Tanzilla website and the demand for harnesses, he says, pointing to a stack of papers about as thick as three Yukon phonebooks

That’s about three months worth of orders for the Tanzilla harnesses, sleds and other locally crafted dog sledding supplies, he says.

“We get a lot of orders due to location. People seem very proud to own something from the Yukon.”

There are comfortable chairs and specialized sewing machines in the back of Duffy’s where two staffers work on sewing harnesses. Oettli also employs other seamstresses, who work from their homes.

The diversified operation helps when calamities strike.

Last winter, about 4,000 crickets arrived dead due to cold temperatures and inadequate packaging. And a shipment of bearded dragons and geckoswas accidently stored at minus 5 Celsius. It could have been disastrous, but Oettli, his wife Regula, their three children and other Duffy’s staff quickly turned the premises into an intensive-care animal hospital, using heat lamps to take the chill away from each cold-blooded lizard.

They didn’t lose a single reptile.

“Most of our shipments come in A-1 shape. In genera l, we have been very fortunate,” says Oettli.

Heidi Loos is a freelance writer

who lives in Whitehorse.