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Pet store braces for blackout

Fin and Gill Aquatic Supplies is two days away from having its electricity cut off. The Riverdale store is home to iguanas, geckos, turtles, a water dragon and a wide array of tropical fish.

Fin and Gill Aquatic Supplies is two days away from having its electricity cut off.

The Riverdale store is home to iguanas, geckos, turtles, a water dragon and a wide array of tropical fish.

“If they pull the meter, they’ll kill everything we’ve got,” says owner Alex Gresl.

He and his wife, Gail, took over the business in late September. At the time, the venture seemed like “a dream come true,” said Gresl.

Now, it’s more like a nightmare.

Gresl, 40, admits he’s made mistakes. He took a gamble by sinking his family’s savings into the business.

He’s since had cash-flow problems. And he fell ill.

The result: he hasn’t paid his power bills. He owes Yukon Electrical $3,500 - largely because of a $2,700 deposit he’s never been able to afford.

Gresl paid the utility $1,000 in late September. But that left a big outstanding balance he couldn’t pay.

Gresl tried to cut a deal with the utility, by offering to enter a payment plan of $1,000 per month. His power bill is typically $850, so the plan would slowly pay off his debt. But Yukon Electrical isn’t interested.

Service regulations set by the Yukon Utilities Board state that the company may cut off anyone who hasn’t paid a bill for 30 days. So that’s what Yukon Electrical’s doing.

“Everything we have is in this,” said Gresl. “If we lose this, we lose everything. We have nothing left.

“We don’t know what else to do. We’ve tried everything.”

He’s approached banks for a loan. But he’s told that his business needs to operate for a year before they’ll deal with him, he said.

Gresl is from Inuvik. His wife is from Fort Simpson.

Three years ago, they moved to Whitehorse from Yellowknife, hoping to find less crime and a lower cost of living.

They did. But finding work wasn’t easy for Gresl.

He had spent a year managing the Northwest Territory’s chamber of commerce and describes himself as a “former senior corporate manager.” So you’d think he’d find work without trouble in the Yukon’s overheated labour market.

Wrong. He’s spent much of the past two years on unemployment insurance.

Yukon’s First Nations give preference to hiring their own members. And jobs with the territorial government have proven elusive because he doesn’t have experience as a bureaucrat, said Gresl.

He worked an eight-month stint with the Selkirk First Nation. Then he fell on hard luck.

He and Gail have four young children. Supporting them on employment insurance hasn’t been easy.

So Gresl figured his luck had changed when he learned that Fin and Gill’s former owner wanted to sell the business, so she could move back to Ontario to care for her ill mother. Gresl struck a lease-to-own deal with her, he said.

She’s been lenient with the payment’s he’s owed her. He hoped Yukon Electrical would do the same.

No such luck.

Gail’s a member of Fort Simpson’s Liidlii Kue First Nation. The couple hopes to obtain a business grant from the First Nation. That would provide their company with needed cash.

But that money, if approved, won’t come soon enough.

No matter what, Gresl plans to exit the pet business. Ideally, he hopes to place the animals in good homes, unwind the pet store and start up a convenience store in the same location on Lewes Boulevard.

Gresl figures there’s an untapped market. Sure, there’s Riverdale Super A Foods just across the street. But they charge a handsome markup on items compared to downtown prices. And they close at 10 p.m.

“If you’re a family man, usually that’s when you’re going to run out,” he said.

The store has two iguanas. Bob is seven years old and nearly a metre long.

He’s unusual for iguanas: he still has his original tail. The lizards’ tails break off and regrow to help foil predators.

George hasn’t been so lucky. The three-year-old iguana was rescued from an abusive owner in Whitehorse about seven weeks ago.

His tail had been cut off. So had his left toes and some spikes on his back.

“The day we got him, he pooped out a beer cap,” said Gresl.

Toes and spikes don’t grow back. But the tail has.

And George’s skin has brightened from a dark grey to light green.

“When we first got him, he was very aggressive,” Gresl said, stroking the animal’s chin. “Now, he’s like a big puppy.”

One of the more unusual fish in the store is an arowana, a long, eel-like fish that inhabits the Amazon River. “They jump six to eight feet out of the water and pull small birds and monkeys out of the air,” said Gresl.

In a small, indoor pond is another fish that is “a relative of the piranha and eats bananas.”

A pair of red-eared slider turtles await shipment to a new home in Vancouver. Their previous owners in Whitehorse didn’t realize how long the animals lived.

How long? “Like, up to 60 years,” said Gresl.

Under infrared light, two geckos clamber inside a glass aquarium. “They think it’s supper time right now.”

“They need to be under constant heat, 24/7. Without it, it’ll kill them.”

Gresl hopes the utility will offer him a last-minute reprieve. Otherwise, if anyone has an idea of how to save his business, he’d like to hear it. Soon.

Contact John Thompson at