Animal Kingdom: Colorful North Side pet shop calling it quits
Store supplied exotic animals to television programs
By Angie Leventis Lourgos
November 30, 2009
The original Chelveston the Duck, a fowl famous for his antics on Ray Rayner’s WGN-TV show, was almost someone’s dinner.
He was rescued from a poultry shop by the Animal Kingdom pet store, which supplied most Chicago-based animal “actors” from the 1950s to the 1980s.
The iconic pet shop at 2980 N. Milwaukee Ave. was once home to Luther the Leopard, who was rented by magicians and did photo shoots, including one for an ad that appeared in Playboy. Tina the Tiger was a model and actress who made appearances in local parades, and the “Acro-Cats” –– four trained alley cats –– would walk tightropes and roll balls into bowling pins for the entertainment of customers.
After about 65 years in Chicago, Animal Kingdom will close in December, when its owners plan on retiring. There is no firm last day set.
“It’s like the death of a family friend,” said Greg Jankowski, 50, who has been a customer since he was 3 and got his first pet, a fish named Fred.
“It’s been in the neighborhood for so long,” he said. “It should have been here longer for more children to appreciate the animals.”
The late Bernie Hoffmann opened the first Animal Kingdom in 1944 at 3021 N. Milwaukee Ave.; the family business is now owned by his son Robert Hoffmann and Robert’s wife, Sandra.
Animal Kingdom was initially a traditional pet shop, offering puppies, birds, fish and kittens. But one day a traveling magician came in searching for two white doves for an act. Bernie Hoffmann saw an opportunity for an animal rental business, which skyrocketed with the growth of television.
The regular house pets were joined by monkeys, tigers, a llama, exotic birds and even a small elephant called Little Audrey. Bernie Hoffmann became famous for bringing Little Audrey and other animals on “Super Circus,” which aired in the 1950s.
Edwin Cerna, 41, has worked at Animal Kingdom since he was 15. He remembers Tina the Tiger licking on his leg and lapping water out of a fish tank while he fed the goldfish on his first day.
“What do you do? There’s a cat next to you that can eat you,” he said, laughing.
The tiger, who Cerna said was old and pretty tame, and some of the other exotic animals were permitted to walk around the store in the morning before it opened.
General manager Steve Maciontek, who has worked there for 43 years, said this was before government agencies adopted more strict regulations for importing and selling exotic animals in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Everything was very loosey-goosey in those days,” he said. “You wanted a lion, you picked up the phone and you got a lion.”
Although Animal Kingdom was occasionally criticized by animal rights activists, Maciontek said he has always been proud of how his shop cares for its pets. Once a lion named Louie wasn’t eating right, so Maciontek brought the giant cat to his home for two weeks and fed him baby food and kitten formula with a turkey baster.
Customers say they’ll always remember the store’s community events, like the pet blessings it has hosted since the late 1960s; some even brought their pets’ ashes to be blessed. The Hoffmans also have provided an animal education program for schools, libraries and park districts for 35 years.
Maciontek said all of the more exotic animals –– like the greater Indian hornbill named Harriet who came to Animal Kingdom in the 1960s –– are going home with the owners or employees. The store will continue selling the rest of its pets and pet supplies until it closes.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org