Each year, we write a post to summarize the major developments of our business. Since we opened in 2016, each year has been a year of growth and development. Like many new small businesses, it was exciting to see how we out performed our previous year as our business grew. In the beginning of this year, there was no reason not to expect this year to be any different. We had more bookings in January and February than we had in the previous year for those same months. By early March, we had over $17,000 in summer bookings on our schedule. It was looking like another great year. Until everything changed.
At first, we were hopeful that the pandemic would only last through March or April. It would be easy to bounce back with our lucrative summer season. We received an EIDL grant and a grant from the State of Maryland which helped keep us afloat. As a small business that is heavily run by the owner of the business and supported by part time employees, we would not meet the requirements for the PPP loan as payroll is less than half of our monthly expenses. As it became obvious that the pandemic would be more enduring, we started offering virtual programs and created a gofundme which raised $1,800 to assist with our animal care expenses.
We had the worst performing summer in our history, including our first summer in business. Many of our expenses remained the same with rent, food for the animals, veterinary care, insurance, and other overhead. When we received our Economic Injury and Disaster Loan in July, the majority of the loan went to refunds for summer programs that had canceled. Fortunately, we were able to give refunds or provide credit to all of our clients.
By mid-summer, I (Alex, owner of Ferrets and Friends) had to make some difficult decisions. When the pandemic started, I had a part time job working in a hospital ER as a social worker and devoted most of my time to the business. I was receiving about 30% of my normal income to cover all of my expenses and I was not able to receive pandemic unemployment benefits due to earning more than the threshold of $178 per week. With my May wedding canceled and future plans put on hold, I was able to use my savings to keep my family and the business afloat for the first six months of the pandemic, but my savings would run dry by the end of September. I knew I would have to create a more sustainable situation. I needed to get a full time job and reduce expenses.
I made the tough decision to re-home one third of the animals and furlough four out of our six employees. Fortunately all of our staff have other full times jobs or sources of income. At the start of 2020, we had over 40 animals in our program. By the end of the year, that number had dropped to 24. Some of the homes we found were other animal ambassador programs. Other homes enabled our animal friends to retire from the working life and to enjoy being pampered family pets. Our re-homed animals included our youngest two ferrets, both of our rabbits, four of our snakes, three of our lizards, and one tarantula. None of our parrots were re-homed. With the re-homing complete, I was able to start a new full time job in my social work career. I now work as part of a mobile crisis team paired with a police officer responding to calls that involve suicide, psychosis, substance abuse, mental health crisis, or grief and sudden death. It's a big change from bringing the joy of animals to kids, but it is equally rewarding. Although I look forward to returning to our regular programs whenever that becomes possible.
But the pandemic wasn't the only thing that happened this year. We also started a new partnership with The Drawing Zoo and became certified as an LGBT Business Enterprise (meaning that we are owned by an LGBT individual). As a queer nonbinary person who also has multiple disabilities, being a small business owner enabled to me to have lifestyle that I didn't think was possible. I have Meniere's disease which is a disorder of the inner ear which can cause unexpected bouts of vertigo and long term hearing loss. I wear a hearing aide to help with my hearing loss, but there is little that helps manage the vertigo. Fortunately, my new job is accommodating and flexible. Anyone with a disability can tell you how rare it is to find a workplace like mine. If there was no pandemic, I probably wouldn't have taken the risk in trying to find such employment. But I am grateful for this new opportunity.
Our Partnership with The Drawing Zoo
For those of you who keep track of us, you may remember that our neighboring booth at the World of Pets Expo in 2019 was The Drawing Zoo. The Drawing Zoo has their own collection of animal friends who have a very special job helping teach art lessons. Each concept of art is paired with an animal to help young artists practice their new skills. This might include snakes to learn about patterns, chameleons to learn about color, or bunnies to learn about texture. Throughout 2019, we worked with The Drawing Zoo by trading animals to allow more diversity in each of our programs. Early this year, we started training our staff to be able to use our own animal ambassadors as part of lessons for The Drawing Zoo so that they would be able to hire us for some of their contracts.
This year was off to a great start! Domino assisted a lesson on color and the ferrets helped Alex during her first solo lesson. Unfortunately, with school closures, the art lessons have been put on hold. We look forward to resuming our partnership when schools reopen.
Our Partnership with Pets on Wheels
We returned to the World of Pets Expo this year as part of our volunteer pet therapy team with Pets on Wheels. Jubilee said hello to guests on Friday evening, while the ferret team demonstrated their therapy skills on Sunday. Our ferret brothers, Pabu and Abu, especially enjoyed meeting their colleagues: therapy dogs. This was also Rory's first event since passing her screening and temperament test. Of course, she did great work.
Unfortunately, pet therapy services were suspended once the pandemic started. Some facilities were able to offer their pet therapy services via zoom. While the parrots were able to adapt to zoom calls, we unsurprisingly couldn't find a way to get our ferrets to sit still. Additionally, ferrets are susceptible to COVID-19 (as well as the human flu!) so it may be some time before they return to their role as therapy pets.
Our Friends' Health in 2020
This year has been a rough year for the animal's health. In the beginning of the year, Missy the Eclectus Parrot had a skin infection that was resistant to treatment. After a biopsy, the veterinarian was able to prescribe the best medication to do the job and Missy had a full recovery. However her training to accept an oral syringe was exhausted by the lengthy course of treatment and she had to be toweled to be given medication for the last couple weeks. Missy will likely have stress bars on her feathers for some time following this illness. Our other minor illness was Bruce, the Veiled Chameleon, who had a minor infection which was successfully treated with antibiotics. The majority of our illness management was due to end of life care for our Bearded Dragon (Lizard of Oz), our hedgehog (Xena), and our ferret (Jack). We also had expensive emergency veterinary bills due to a disaster beyond our control.
In July of this year, there was a electrical fire in a shared space at part of our residence and smoke drifted into our unit. As soon as fire fighters cleared us for re-entry, we immediately took our parrots to Pender Veterinary Centre for emergency services. Parrots, like other birds, have very sensitive respiratory systems. Smoke inhalation can cause serious harm or even be fatal. We were not allowed to enter the facility due to COVID-19 precautions which was likely an additional stress for our birds. Domino and Missy both received oxygen treatment overnight. Our two other parrots fortunately did not show any impact from the smoke inhalation. In the morning, Missy and Domino were cleared to travel to their regular veterinarian. Our regular veterinarian cleared Domino to return home, but Missy continued to be monitored and received oxygen therapy as she was most impacted by the smoke. After a stressful 24 hours, Missy was cleared to go home with medication. Since then, all of our parrots have made a full recovery and no other animals have shown signs of being affected by the smoke. Fortunately no lives were lost and there was no lasting damage to our property.
In October, Xena the hedgehog passed away. She joined us in 2017 and was an animal ambassador for three years. While she did not enjoy being held, she did enjoy exploring new places and eating her favorite meal worm treats. With Xena, we noticed gradual weight loss in the spring but no cause could be determined. In late August, her weight dropped substantially and she stopped eating independently. She was fed by oral syringe, given fluids, and treated for a urinary tract infection. After recovering, her health declined again. Further diagnostics revealed multiple tumors. Due to her condition, she was not a good surgical candidate so her quality of life was monitored until it reached a point that we decided to have her humanely euthanized to eliminate further suffering. Like many older hedgehogs, Xena became wobbly in her final months. Many new hedgehog owners have heard of Wobbly Hedgehog Syndrome and may automatically jump to this conclusion. In most cases, if the wobbliness occurs quickly or suddenly, there is likely another cause such as infection or dehydration. Always take your hedgehog to a knowledgeable veterinarian to determine the cause of their symptoms.
Finally, Jack the ferret was euthanized at the end of December after a long period of illness. Jack was diagnosed with adrenal disease in 2018 and received a hormone implant. Early in 2020, he was also diagnosed with insulinoma and given medication to manage his symptoms. While his insulinoma was still well managed at the time of his death, it was his adrenal disease that had stopped responding to treatment. When his quality of life declined, we decided to have him humanely euthanized. Jack was an animal ambassador for five years and he passed away a few months shy of sixth birthday. Jack is known by our fans for his bond with our cat, Peach. He will be missed.
New to the Zoo
This year, we made the decision to fill in the vacancy that was left by Kurt the Green Cheek Conure who passed away early in 2019. We settled on adding a Quaker Parrot (or Monk Parakeet). We wanted to have a smaller bird that would be a suitable size for Domino, Kurt's surviving mate. But we also wanted a species that could add some diversity to our usual talking points. Quaker Parrots are a common invasive species in different part of the world and are actually illegal to own in some parts of the United States due to their tendency to make large nests. Quakers are known for making little birdie apartment complexes with some nests being as large as a small car. These nests can have as many as 27 different units which will be occupied by the Quaker flock as well as other bird species. These nests create significant problems in urban environments which is part of the reason that they become illegal as pets in certain areas.
Our staff named our new little friend Quito! He hatched on March 1, 2020 and was able to come home in May. He's already started talking and his favorite activities include screaming with Jubilee (our macaw), bathing in the sink, and trying to make friends with Domino. He has attended some of our events for socialization and is learning quickly from his peers. We hope that he will be fun regular addition to our programs in 2021. Until then, he has been enjoying his life as a spoiled pet.
At the time of writing, the future of Ferrets and Friends seems uncertain. It is possible that we might close as a business or that we might shift directions in the near future. We are incredibly grateful for all the opportunities we have had and for all of our friends who have invited us into their homes, schools, and communities. It has been a pleasure serving you and sharing our passion for animals with you. Change can be a scary thing, but it's important to take a moment to appreciate what life has given you and to recognize the new opportunities in every loss. Grief and love are two sides of the same coin. As painful as our losses are, it is that pain that reveals the depth of our love and what a miracle it has been to have a love like that in the first place.
We are ending this year in gratitude. For all those who kept our fridges full when we were hungry, who supported us when we were struggling, and who celebrated with us in our accomplishments. What a wonderful world we live in to be able to share it with people like you. Thank you!
About the blog
Ferrets and Friends, LLC has four writers bringing you information on a variety of topics from pets to wildlife, education to conservation, and from new developments in our business to information about our industry. Learn something new each week!