Lived Through This

The ‘Tiger King’ Informant Was My Coworker at Petco

A pet store-y about animals, friendship, and pot brownies

Feast your eyes upon the inexplicably idolized, habitually repulsive Joseph Maldonado-Passage, street name (yes, like a hard drug) “Joe Exotic.” He’s the one in Netflix’s Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness with whiskers. I mean, he’s the one with blue-green eyes and platinum blonde hair. Wow, no. Not that one. He’s the predator in snazzy stripes. Okay, fine. He’s the one wearing sunglasses on his head— that should narrow it down.

I suited up for a deep dive into the savage subculture of big cat collecting after a friend sent a link to stream the offering along with an equation: “Joe Exotic’s style + Oklahoma + cats = April” (that’s me, I’m April). Simple math, really. And speaking of simple, I’ve always felt like the term “big cat” (indicating members of the genus Panthera) seemed like a minimizing misnomer. You just don’t hear people referring to wolves as “big dogs,” yet that is exactly what they are. *taps temple*

Tiger King unfolds like hot, meaty heaps from a sloppy joe as we’re introduced to the exotic animal-hoarding megalomaniacs who will light up your living room (with arson, not charisma) and numb your butt for seven arguably riveting hours. Tigger [sic] warning: As a result of our coronavirus-based state of captivity, it’s even more troublesome to bear witness to these awe-inspiring creatures who have and will continue to spend their lives in cages.

Within the first five opening minutes, a face familiar to me appeared on screen and spat, “The big cat people are backstabbing pieces of shit!” And thus a boiled-down synopsis for the entire show was fortuitously born.

James Garretson is a former Plano, Texas, pet store coworker of mine whom Joe Exotic spitefully dubs a “walking Chucky doll.” But hey, laugh all you want because we’ve all been there, right?

Side note: I won a costume contest that Halloween, but it turned out the judge thought I was “Wendy’s.” Yes, a whole Wendy’s franchise. Maybe all of the Wendy’s franchises combined! I’ll never know because I pulled a predictable Irish goodbye and forgot to claim my prize of dangly, beaded, jewel-toned wine glass charms. Photo courtesy of the author.

Naturally, I updated my friends with a text: “You’re not going to believe it, but I used to know the ginger businessman from Tiger King! Hey, doesn’t ‘ginger businessman’ sound like a little cookie person with a side part, frosting tie, edible briefca — Oh crap, sorry. It’s three in the morning.”

I haven’t seen James since the year 2000, way back when that pesky Y2K bug was threatening to end it all: mainframes, desktops, air-traffic control, clock radios, LAN parties, that Snake game on your flip-phone, tamagotchis, and Lindsay Lohan.

That stuffy, Snapple-stained pharmacy lab coat was a starchy cocoon and the 100% cotton, lapis blue embroidered Petco polo would be my chrysalis.

At the time I was working as a pharmacy technician’s assistant when I learned the local pet store was hiring. Ringing up kids from my high school for their gonorrhea prescriptions was a priceless experience, but I’d just suffered a minor injury in which I snagged my recently pierced belly button ring on a shelf while restocking Lipitor. Besides, I had to get out of there before they caught me shoplifting Virginia Slims.

On a more superficial note, the change of both scenery and uniform sounded swell. That stuffy, Snapple-stained pharmacy lab coat was a starchy cocoon and the 100% cotton, lapis blue embroidered Petco polo would be my chrysalis.

“No need for an interview,” the manager claimed. “Really?” I wondered, as I continued peeling back the foil from a pot brownie at 10 in the morning. “You don’t need to meet with me before I become an animal expert?!” I took a mega-bite of my chocolate psychoactive breakfast. “Nope, just complete an application before your training begins tomorrow.”

I swallowed and smiled proudly. “Wow, thanks! I’ll see you then!” I hung up the phone deciding there must be an aurally detectable je ne sais quoi about me.

I met one of my (still) best pals that very first day, Julie, a cute brunette who bore a striking resemblance to Rachael Leigh Cook. When she turned to face me, I had arms outstretched to dry my pits with the intermittent breeze from a pair of automatic sliding glass doors. To her, I must’ve appeared to be a backlit humanoid scarecrow. Texas summers in my late grandpa’s ’89 Corolla with no AC or power steering were not for the faint of heart. They were only for fainting. And for Heart.

Her enormous Powerpuff Girls watch caught my eye as she carefully set a glass cup containing one terminally bored, iridescent Siamese fighting fish onto the conveyor belt. “Cool watch,” I stammered while finally lowering my awesome first impression airplane arms. It dwarfed her already lissome limbs. “Thanks!” She smiled back with her whole face. Phew. We were one mention of the socially awkward teenage girl magic word (“Björk”) away from some serious sentimental sisterhood.

That event contrasted greatly with how I met my first best friend, Johnnie. One afternoon, while enjoying a solo sidewalk tea party outside my childhood home, she ran right over my peanut butter and jelly sandwich with her bicycle because seven-year-olds are goblins. Sadly, it didn’t form two even halves that we shared under the live oak tree because we weren’t the stars of an IronKids Bread commercial. As she pedaled away, I screamed so loudly my uvula nearly flew from my throat like slingshot ammo. Our moms understandably assumed I was being kidnapped and forced us to reconcile. We lost touch a couple years later. I can only imagine she became the first female pro monster truck driver (with extra Monster Jam).

Once an animal expert, ALWAYS an animal expert. That’s part of the Petco blood-covenant!

If you started reading this just to get the scoop on James Garretson, you probably feel like you’ve been catfished at this point. Lionfished? Tigerfished? All of the above are existent. Once an animal expert, ALWAYS an animal expert. That’s part of the Petco blood-covenant!

At some point amidst the utopian backdrop of hush-hush dog bed naps taken in shifts, infinity jumbo gumballs from a machine with a faulty lock, and keeping a ferret in my waist apron at all times, my shift overlapped with that of the night stocker’s, James Garretson (not to be confused with Richard Ramirez the Night Stalker).

I remember him as a hard-working, proper pet store employee who kept to himself, maintained focus, didn’t show up stoned, and got his job done like a real adult. Basically, he exemplified whatever was the opposite of my work ethic on every level at the time. Listen, the universe requires balance. (Word to the wise, don’t hire 17-year-olds who think the world owes them something.) Anyway, I knew nothing of the strip club side hustle that was reportedly going on at the time. However, he was chatty about his wildlife “rescue” facility on the outskirts of Dallas.

James approached one super early morning as I neared the end of the most crucial animal expert duty, “pulling dead.” “Pulling dead” was an actual, highly upsetting technical term thrown around casually at the time. It involved removing anything without a pulse from various habitats before the first customers arrived and depositing their limp lifeless bodies in their final resting place, a dated Ziploc baggie inside a commercial freezer chest at the back of the store (kind of in plain sight, yeesh). No proper dollhouse-sized morgue with tiny roll-out drawers and miniature toe tags. Donate to PETA here!

Half-asleep and stoned (a memoir), I skimmed the surface of a dismal, overcrowded aquarium with my rusty little net when James asked, “You wanna pet a lion tonight?”

I counted my last expired goldfish for inventory and beamed. “Twenty-seven! I mean, YES!” Donate to PETA here!

Naively, I imagined something more late 1800’s circus-y, like a Barnum’s Animal Cracker box-style wagon rolling through the pet store parking lot behind a Fiji Mermaid display, but it was just an ordinary horse trailer carrying one very drowsy, very large male lion.

Chock-full of nervous excitement, I carefully approached to get a better view. What I saw was unimaginable — much like attending an open-casket funeral or witnessing a line forming at the Fuddruckers hot cheddar cheese sauce pump. There are certain visual images the human brain can’t fathom.

“You can pet him,” James murmured as I stood hesitantly on my tiptoes, trying to see through the dirty, fogged-by-beast-breath window. “Just like this.”

I shuffled backwards as he stepped closer. Then he slid his entire arm through the opening, casually scratching the yellow-gold fringe behind the lion’s ears.

“Just like that, got it!” I feigned coolheadedness followed by some incoherent bleating. With James’ bravery and the lion’s courage in mind, I rapidly extended then retracted my own arm about a dozen times at full, panicked speed. Beads of sweat formed as a result of my spastic, one-sided aerobics move.

Finally, my hand hovered close enough to feel the slow purr of primal body heat beneath the fur of his bushy mane. Seizing the opportunity, James helped my hand the rest of the way. I held my breath, closed one eye tightly and felt like I was going to cry or pee, maybe both. Whatever happened, it would be worth it because I was TOUCHING A LION.

I hate to break up the party with my past self, but no one should ever touch a lion. My present self is advising against it at all costs. Their power is one to behold, but they should never be held. And evidence firmly supports that trying to monetize and wield that kind of magic will only transform you into one of the worst supervillains ever — like Sinestro, Loki, or Ann Coulter.

While the whole world continues witnessing Mr. Garretson’s fumbles and foibles, I feel it’s only fair to leave you with a rundown of things he saw me do in our place of business. Again, it’s about balance (and cleverly avoiding retaliation or blackmail).

April’s “Be the Worst Employee of Petco” Checklist:

  • Sample every dog treat on the market as research, specifically those from the “Bakery Pet Bar” because the cookies that resemble Oreos actually taste like… liver powder and wheat germ with a hint of chocolate wafer. *chef’s kiss*
  • Start a squeaky dog toy fight just as your fellow employees are finished straightening up the store and management is locking up.
  • Sob loudly and publicly atop a tower of palleted Gravy Train dry dog food bags when your favorite parrot, a Green-cheeked conure, is adopted.
  • If you’re low on funds because you make $4.25/hour for part-time work, just have a “ghost customer” return a $20 item from the store and pocket the cash. Now you can attend a rave at the hazardous abandoned movie theater with your pals who wear the same big dumb pants as you.
  • Handle many snakes, but also drop them and scream when they frighten you. Same goes for bagging crickets for customers with insectivores.
  • Drop out of high school and take an employee from the store with you for emotional support. I took Julie!
  • Wildly scratch the mite bites you got from cleaning the rodent habitats while you’re with a customer. Ask the customer if they have any cortisone cream and corner them regarding why they want a hamster while you apply it on your skin. Recommend a gerbil instead. They’re not as floofy, but they never ever bite and don’t murder each other when they have to share a cage. Hamsters are pretty anti-social and just want to sleep. They also get really grumpy when you wake them up, kinda like your older sister. Cold, hard hamster facts and personal anecdotes are what the people come for, so just keep riffing.

This also doubles as a list of reasons why they eventually let me go, but I swear I worked there for a whole year (which is basically five years in teenager time). Shortly after, I loaded the essentials (caboodles and candy) into my jalopy and traveled east to finish classes in North Carolina. I eventually graduated from Adult High School in Charlotte and have a picture of myself donning a silver cap n’ gown with my finger up my nose to prove it (sorry, Mom).

Seventeen-some odd years later I’m happy to report an increase in overall ethics and maturity.

Austin, TX-based writer, wardrobe stylist, costumer, and designer for television and film.

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