Animal Queendom: How Charlotte’s Creature-Based Businesses Have Survived 2020
Canis familiaris (dogs) and Felis catus (cats) are just two of the thousands of species that Charlotteans call pets. Here’s a look inside a complicated—and innovative—year for critter-lovers outside of the metropolitan mainstream, including cold-blooded-pet purveyors, an urban horseman, and a family of alpaca ranchers
Soaring pet adoptions is one of the few positive storylines from 2020.
In September, the national nonprofit Shelter Animals Count announced that shelter euthanasia was down 46 percent. That factoid is particularly relevant to a growing metropolis like Charlotte, where new landmarks cater to millennials and their canines. Breweries boast spacious patios with water bowls, upscale apartment complexes advertise on-site dog parks, and co-working spaces teem with entrepreneurs and their furry co-conspirators. In this city, you could conceivably go to work, dine out, and grab a beer with friends and meet a different goldendoodle at each location.
Even before COVID-19, a majority of homes had animal occupants, too. As of January, 67 percent of U.S. households had pets. That’s 85 million mixed-species families that spent 2020 navigating a pandemic in close proximity, a number that’ll shoot even higher by the end of the year. For many families (including our publisher’s), a stay-at-home order was that last nudge toward a new puppy.
It’s not just canines and felines finding new homes. Yet discussions about pet adoptions and being an “animal-friendly city” focus on those two species out of the millions on Earth—and the thousands legally ownable in North Carolina. As the owner of two dogs, I admit holding that same bias until this summer, when I visited three sites that altered my perspective on animal ownership in Charlotte.
Turns out, 2020 was a year of several storylines for our unexpected creatures. And their purveyors and caretakers tell tales of surprise and innovation in a city that doesn’t cater to them.
Residential and retail construction hug University City Boulevard, in a district booming after the light rail’s 2018 extension north to UNC Charlotte.
In certain pockets, you’ll find signs of University City’s rural history. The name of one new development, The Farms At Backcreek, pays homage to the structures that once lined the winding Back Creek Church Road. Here, at one of the few surviving barns off this road, Gregg Lockhart has promised me a history lesson.
“For me, it all started at Mr. Martin’s farm,” the 22-year-old Charlotte native says. “He’s been operating that place for more than 50 years. I’ve been riding since I was 10—and started teaching at 15. But it’s all because of Big M.”
Lockhart, owner of Lockhart Performance, is part of a tradition of Black horsemen in the Carolinas. His path, like thousands of others, leads back to Big M Stables in Druid Hills. The urban horse farm near Camp North End is owned by legendary trainer Bobby Martin—or Mr. Martin, as Lockhart and others address him. Lockhart’s mother also learned from Martin. I’ve asked him to help me understand the scope of Black ridership in Charlotte; he’s one of several Martin protégés who have started their own riding instruction and event-based businesses.
Many Black horsemen in Charlotte belong to a riding group, Lockhart says. He rattles off several: There’s TrailBred Riderz and Rich Game Riders; 704 Horsemen, one of the most popular in the area, was founded by Lockhart’s uncle, Bingo. These riders, and thousands more, attend the Ebony Horsemen Trail Ride in Shelby each year (though this year’s event was canceled). Members of those groups surprised crowds this summer during the George Floyd protests, when they trotted alongside demonstrators.
“People are surprised to find out that these are city horses. They’re different,” Lockhart says. “The riders and the horses, we’re not country. I grew up off of North Graham Street. I’m all city. … The main thing we have to do to ride here is clean up after ourselves. When we ride in parades, we have a guy that follows us, and he cleans up the poop after everyone.
“There are other rules, like you can’t always ride them on the sidewalk. We respect that rule, and then the cars: We’ll tell them to go around, or they’ll slow up for us. But as far as we’re concerned, this is still a mode of transportation.”
Lockhart Performance is one of several Black-owned businesses in Charlotte that offer riding lessons, party appearances, and barn tours. Lockhart says two major entertainers recently boosted Black interest in his services: “Old Town Road” cross-genre rapper Lil Nas X and chart-topping performer Megan Thee Stallion, which led to a windfall of photo shoots at the barn.
Surprisingly, COVID helped his business, too. “Everything spiked,” Lockhart says. “More people wanted to do outdoor activities. … I guess that happens when you’re stuck inside. It arrived at a strange time, too, because Libby, my baby, the star of the show, was pregnant, so I had to use other horses here.”
Lockhart acquired Libby, an underweight standardbred, two years ago. Lockhart nursed her to health, which, he says, “created a bond that’ll last forever.” People come to see her for her kind temperament and the novelty of her breed, known for harness racing. She appears in the logo on his hat and on his company’s Instagram, often adorned with custom Supreme-style gear and braids. Her foal, which Lockhart named Luxury, died after a premature birth. It was the first time Lockhart brought in a vet for on-site guidance.
“I’m from the ’hood, where we had to fix our horses ourselves,” he says. Lockhart’s family visited professionals for regular veterinary checkups and vaccinations but otherwise had to manage minor wounds and ailments on their own. “For the first time, I did not know what needed to be done here,” he says. “I needed IV.”
Libby’s now on the mend. When we talk in September, Lockhart says he’s going to give her a few extra weeks before he lets others ride her again. “It’s hard,” Lockhart says. “She’s my baby. But it’s what you have to do. Some people look at this as a hobby. But for me and my boys, this is a lifestyle.”
COLD BLOODED & BIZARRE
When I arrive at Cold Blooded & Bizarre on an August morning, co-owner Michael Edelen tells me there’s a snake on the loose.
I freeze at the entrance of the Plaza Midwood store—the most I could do to help out. He explains that Patrick Kamberos, one of the other two owners of the shop, just needs a minute to get the slithering creature back into its enclosure. I ask the obvious question: Does this happen often?
Once in a while. But it shouldn’t happen again after the exotic animal shop upgraded its plastic encasements to glass in the coming months. The previous screens warped over time, with occasional crevices just big enough to squeeze through if you don’t have limbs. It’s why staff regularly take inventory, and it’s another lesson Edelen has learned since he opened Cold Blooded & Bizarre last year with his wife, Shay, and Kamberos.
The trio moved from Chicago, where Michael Edelen met Kamberos at DePaul University and graduated in 2012. Edelen and Kamberos are lifelong collectors of amphibians, insects, and invertebrates—three groups Edelen insists have as much personality as humans and dogs. The bearded dragons in the corner love to be petted. (Most of their neighbors in the lizard section don’t.)
But I’m not here to talk about escapees. I want to know more about the exotic animal community—and what effect, if any, the pandemic’s had on it.
“First, things really slowed down. People were just buying the necessities, like food and other supplies, and then moving on,” Edelen says. “Then, after a couple of months, it’s finally returning to pre-COVID business.”
Cold Blooded and Bizarre didn’t have issues with feed supply this year, unlike big-box pet stores like PetSmart and Petco. Pet reptiles mainly eat crickets, and staffing shortages for national suppliers meant supply delays. Thankfully, the trio behind the Plaza Midwood store uses a local, smaller farm that’s remained unaffected. That’s helped bring the business back to health.
The big numbers for dogs and cat adoptions haven’t carried over to the shop’s inhabitants, Kamberos says. If anything, under COVID, more people have relinquished them. Pet owners lose their homes, can’t afford pricey feed, or move to cheaper rentals that prohibit creatures like emerald tree boa constrictors. Exotic animals are sometimes known for their ease of care: Some snakes may only eat once a month, and certain reptiles need only bugs and the right kind of light.
Still, pet ownership isn’t for everyone. All three owners actually spend much of their time talking customers out of it. People in small apartments shouldn’t have reticulated pythons, for instance, because, well, they’re the longest snakes in the world. “I can tell you, you don’t need it as a pet in Charlotte, North Carolina,” Edelen says. “It’s eventually going to get to the size that it takes two to three to four people to safely even move it. It’ll get 20-plus feet at 200-plus pounds, and I can tell you that a 200-plus-pound snake is all muscle and feels more like 500 pounds.”
Cold Blooded and Bizarre does offer rehabilitation and rehoming, a big need for people who own lizards, snakes, and insects. The business works with the North Carolina Herpetological Society and exotic animal and native wildlife rehabilitation programs. “So if people bring us box turtles, which they do a lot, we have one of our associates pick it up the same day or very early the next morning,” Kamberos says, “and the injured ones are in surgery within an hour.”
Kids, who represent much of the store’s customer base, sometimes lose interest as they grow up. Not Edelen and Kamberos. Edelen’s neighborhood pet store forged him into a reptile obsessive, while Kamberos’ love of the environment, which he later studied in college, led to his enduring fondness for the cold-blooded and bizarre.
The shop has become something of a free neighborhood zoo for Facebook parenting groups in the area. They love window-shoppers, Edelen says, because they were once those kids. As business returns to normal and local partnerships set them apart from the big brands, Cold Blooded and Bizarre’s staff come up with new ways to educate the community.
The first idea is to expand the shop. The next step, Kamberos says, will be even bigger: “Ever heard of the Raptor Center (in Huntersville)? Something to that effect.”
Just make sure the enclosures are made of glass, OK?
GOOD KARMA RANCH
Though it may sound strange, Shelly Walsh says alpacas are her “coffee and paper in the morning.”
Each day, she enters her family’s field Iron Station to be with these seemingly daffy, 3-foot-tall creatures—even before her son and husband rise. Walsh says the tranquil nature of the animals sets the tone for her day. “Even if they are especially goofy right now,” she says. “They were just shorn in April, so they have this bobblehead kind of look. But there’s just a peacefulness about them.”
That peace is much-needed in 2020. The family-run farm, which opened to the public four years ago, closed for several months as the stay-at-home order went into effect this spring. Shelly’s husband, Mike, had just left a job to work full-time at the farm, and until March, business was thriving. The farm makes money from three sources: tours and events; sought-after alpaca-wool products; and breeding, a side of the business the public never sees. Mike focused on general maintenance and breeding and selling alpacas while the farm was closed.
Meanwhile, “we used that time to totally revamp, completely from scratch, our website,” Shelly says, “and try to drive traffic online with our online store. We just had to completely refocus, as most small businesses were doing. We had to get everything online as quickly as we could. We also tried to keep our audience engaged on social media while they couldn’t visit us.” The family belongs to a co-op in New England that takes care of fiber production.
Shelly and Mike also used that time to figure out how they’d reintroduce the public to the farm. In September, the farm reopened with extended farm tours on weekdays, alpaca-accompanied yoga, and classes for students in local school districts. While her family doesn’t consider their 27 alpacas (and one llama) pets, they know that hundreds of weekly visitors at Good Karma Ranch assume they have that relationship for 45 minutes at a time.
The educational part of the tour helps the Walshes explain how alpacas differ from our cats and dogs. “They’re really cute, right?” Shelly says. “But they don’t love us like that. They don’t care that it’s me feeding them; they just want any human being to give them hay or grain. They don’t like their heads touched, and we have to pick certain animals for our agritourism events that just have a more agreeable nature in being touched. Then, we explain to people how we actually view them and why they’re special. That comes down to education.”
“Education” is the word that tethers all of the locals in this story. During a difficult year, community is what saved them, and they used those relationships to explain what makes their animals special.
“What we’ve learned is that you just have to adapt and adjust if you want to keep growing as a business right now,” Shelly says. “For us, we’re just really trying to find unique ways to get people interested in alpacas. We know that whenever kids go back to school, our weekday farm is just going to die. So how do we keep up that interest and revenue then? That’s what we’re working on as a small business. In the meantime, we’re going to keep up opportunities for kids to get outside. I know parents are desperately looking. I know I am.”
Andy Smith is executive editor of this magazine.