Inside Oak Cliff’s mom-and-pop pet store, Wonderland Tropicals

Butchy the Oak Cliff sugar glider can fly.

Technically, Butchy is a petite gliding possum. He’d been hiding in what looked like a light brown sock in a tall metal cage at Wonderland Tropicals on Jefferson Boulevard. Cesar Valdez, the pet shop’s owner, had noticed my 5- and 8-year-olds staring at the hanging tan cloth bundle and asked if they wanted to see what was inside.

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Of course they did.

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This is the type of moment that Valdez lives for – showing curious children and their adults just how magnificent pets can be. It’s why he bought the store in the first place, from original owner Tom Louis in 2000, to share his passion for tiny creatures with his Oak Cliff neighbors and anyone else asking. At the time he only fell in love with the animal half of the store — the other half was dedicated to selling antiques back then.

But not anymore.

Now 100 percent of Wonderland is dedicated to showcasing every potential pet you can think of: Kittens, puppies, rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, parrots, fish, lizards, snakes, frogs and canaries. There’s nothing Valdez loves more than to hand an interested buyer one of his furry, slimy, feathery or spiky friends while he explains exactly what it needs to flourish.

When we first met Valdez on a cricket-buying expedition for our anole lizards, he showed us the indoor pool that’s home to dozens of Japanese koi. Nuggets of fish food fill the bubble-gum machine next to it, and for a quarter you can experience the thrill of making an extra-wide tub full of energetic and oversized foreign goldfish extremely happy. My kids can’t believe such a thing is even possible.

And then there’s Delilah.

She’s Valdez’s baby, the tamest and friendliest German shepherd you’ll ever meet. It’s actually her store, too, and there’s nothing Delilah loves to do more than walk the aisles and teach us humans how to properly scratch behind a canine’s itchy ears.

It’s hard to get that kind of attention at a retail chain.

Butchy the sugar glider emerges from his sock and leaps from the top edge of the cage, gliding softly onto Cesar’s outstretched arm. My kids applaud and start to ask questions about Butchy’s diet, and Valdez explains why high protein snacks like mealworms, crickets and even a scrambled egg are best.

That’s why we keep going back – not just to buy, but to visit. No one gets annoyed if you don’t buy anything.

Valdez believes it’s his job to greet customers and get them started with whatever animal-based connection they’re seeking. And until they’re ready to take that step, he’ll introduce you to all of his warm and cold-blooded friends.

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  • It has been several years since I was in this store, and it was a very bad experience. It was summer, but the AC was not working. There were a lot of loose birds — I believe they were finches — flying around, up near the ceiling. Some were flying into walls. There was a lot of bird poop around. The worst was a whole aquarium full of gerbils. There were so many in there, they were several layers deep, with dead ones in the bottom layers. There was no food or water. It was simply awful. My Son was with me and was as traumatized by it as I was.

  • Let me preface this by saying I haven’t been in this store for a couple of years … My kids and I went in to get fish food. I was stunned at the conditions the kittens were kept in. They had multi-tiered bird cages full of kittens, crawling all over each other, full litter boxes and soiled paper. Some of the kittens were visibly wounded and maimed and many did not have access to litter. I brought home two of the worst ones – one was severely malnourished, the other was missing a tail and the wound was fresh. I spent hundreds of dollars on vet care for them and they both died within a week. I hope it is true they no longer sell puppies and kittens but I’ve been suspicious of the place since then.

  • Guinea pigs are hard to come by at the shelter. There are rescue groups, but they put restrictions on would-be owners.

  • If you’re in the market for a bunny or guinea pig…this is the place! Also, they sell guinea pig food in bulk! Way less expensive than what you pay at any other pet market chain!

  • I’ve never seen dogs or cats for sale there, just small animals, fish, birds and reptiles.

  • I’m shocked that people still think it’s ok to buy a dog or a cat at a pet store. FFS, just go to a shelter.

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