The Moment Of Awe: Arachnids, Reptiles, Amphibians Key To Helping People

By | 2015-03-05T09:00:00-04:00 March 5th, 2015|Guides, Pets|

LANSING – A little boy – about 8 years old – stood before him, a mason jar full of coins. The child was over the moon excited as he announced “I get a hamster today!”
That moment says Michael Borchard, 43, was an “awe moment,” and exemplifies why he loves his work at Preuss Pets. This store is a venerable Lansing institution – beyond anything one might imagine when the words pet store are raised. It features 10,000 square feet of retail space, and another 15,000 of stock. The store grows much of the coral it offers for sale right in the facility, and breeds many of the freshwater fish it offers as well. In the reptile and small animal department that Borchard manages, they have 2,500 square feet of retail space. On site, they breed various species of frogs, at least a half dozen species of small mammals, two species of tarantulas and two species of lizards.
Borchard has been with the family owned store for over half his life. He was hired to work at the store when he was 19 years old. This coming year he will celebrate a quarter of a century. When he was first hired, he was there to do whatever was needed in the company’s Haslett location. The company also had a location on Lansing’s southside.
A terrible fire in 1993 – just days before Christmas – tore through the south Lansing location, killing most of the animals. The store was a total loss. But some animals did manage to survive the inferno. Some frogs, a guinea pig, tarantulas and some fish. The store’s red legged tortoises – Fred and Ginger – also survived the fire, although the two land animals required intensive vet care for smoke inhalation as well as burns received when the plastic rim on their enclosure melted and dripped onto them. Both are alive and well to this day, living in a converted meat sales case at the Old Town Lansing location. All the surviving animals were transported to Haslett.
The surviving guinea pig – the only mammal to live through the fire – became the stud in a harem of guinea pigs. He had originally been slated to be sold as reptile food.
The Preuss family decided to offer reptiles and small animals at the Haslett location, and Borchard was tapped to manage the operation
“Out of the ashes of that unfortunate situation came the phoenix: Michael,” he says with a smile.
As long as he can remember, Borchard says, he has been fascinated by animals.
“I see the beauty in every creature,” he says. “Even the dung beetle. I think it’s adorable the way they pick up the dung and move it around.”
His eyes light up and he becomes particularly animated as he discusses his fascination with tarantulas, particularly the three he has at home. He says he is fascinated by the way they molt, the fact that they will regrow a fang or an appendage and that, when creating burrows, they use their fangs to move dirt.
The metamorphosis demonstrated by molting spiders is something that fascinates him in general and feeds his greatest fascination – frogs. He says he loves the transition from an animal which is solely a water dwelling animal to an animal that is land dwelling.
“Maybe I was attracted to that at a young age because it told me that someone could become someone else, something else,” he says.
The frog fascination began early. He recalls visiting the local “crick” to collect frogs and crayfish, and bringing them home for a time, then releasing them again. He said that fascination might have been fed by stories from his mother who told him that as a child she had “rescued” frogs from her older brothers, offering them first-aid and helping them mend before releasing them again.
“That really stuck with me,” he says of his mother’s tales. “It was always instilled in me that we needed to take care of animals.”
And his parents were supportive of his endeavors with animals.
“They never discouraged me. They always said, ‘As long as you can take care of them,'” he says of his parents and his animals.
This early fascination and story telling from his mother has combined to create a life long passion.
“It’s my calling,” he says. “Everyday I come across a situation where I think, ‘What would happen if I hadn’t been here to help?'”
This fits into an overall philosophy that has made the Preuss family store an institution in Michigan – an institution that has reaped numerous local, state and national awards for its unique blend of education, compassion and service.
Jean Preuss, the family matriarch who passed away in the late ’90s, once said the goal of the store was to help people find an animal to connect with. In that connection, she believed, people were able to find love. She discovered this from the connections of her family’s foster children and from watching the customers regularly.
It was Jean, working at another local pet store before she had opened her own, who first worked with Michael. There he was, the 8-year-old, brimming with excitement at the purchase of his first goldfish.
Jean was standing at the counter at that other store which closed decades ago, he says.
“She was just talking to me – to me – instilling this responsibility for caring for this fish,” he says of that day and that moment. A moment he sees repeated every day at Preuss.
And the store has become a refuge for people as well, he notes. That too was something Jean had imagined as the core to her philosophy.
“I had a customer who was in the other day – I knew her as a guinea pig customer. I asked her if there was anything I could get for her, and she said no. Her pigs were all set,” he says. “But then she said, but I am not OK, and I just needed to be here.”
Borchard himself will sometimes come to the store when he is not working and wander through. “It is calming. You lose yourself,” he says.
He laughs at the apparent contradiction presented in the stereotype of being gay, and his own reality.
“You know we’re not supposed to like the creepy crawlies, yet here I am,” he says.
That’s an important reality for him too, particularly as he works to share his fascination and admiration for the animals in his care. People have fears of reptiles and spiders, he acknowledges. But they are judging them by their cover, which is never a good idea – whether an animal or a person.
So he revels in the opportunity to help people become a little more interested in, and little less afraid of, the creatures in his care. He says he looks for the “awe” moment in those interactions.
“That’s when they walk away with a little less fear, and a little more understanding,” he says. “That’s the awe moment. That’s when it matters.”

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