Lizards, Killfish, and Birds, Oh My!

Dale Stepnicka and his bird, Scarlet

One day, a dearly loved parrot owned by a local Corvallis woman began having seizures. Unable to afford the vet bills, she was heartbroken and left hopeless. Sobbing, she stopped by the Animal House in Corvallis hoping to get some sort of help.

There she found Dale Stepnicka, who comforted her and offered step-by-step instructions for what she could do. With a little bit of hope restored, she went home ready to do what she could with the new advice.

Weeks later, Stepnicka was greeted by the familiar face of the woman, but with a smile replacing her tears. In her hands was a bucket of assorted candy for Stepnicka. Her gratitude ran for miles; her parrot was healthy again thanks to the advice of the owner of Animal House. But she didn’t need to thank him. This is, of course, what makes it all worth it to him.

“I get a good feeling when helping people,” said Stepnicka.

With salt and pepper hair and a mustache that perks up with each gentle smile, he stands at about 5-foot-8, adding a couple inches if you count the parrot on his shoulder. Stepnicka, 65, has run Animal House for 36 years.

“I’ve been fascinated by animals since I was really young,” Stepnicka said.

When Stepnicka was 3 years old, his father built a glass aquarium and a pond in their backyard in Southern California. He introduced Stepnicka to goldfish, and his passion was born.

“I got into it big time,” Stepnicka said. “I would find broken aquariums in trash cans and bushes and would take them home to fix them.”

Wanting to learn everything he could about exotic fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, he read countless books. He was never into fiction, he only picked up informational books to add to his mental library of facts on every animal you can think of.

Nathan Searles, who’s been working at Animal house since last April, describes Stepnicka best: “He’s an encyclopedia on all things animals. No matter your question, he’s got an answer.”

At age 9 in Southern California, Stepnicka pedaled his bike upwards of six miles to the largest fish wholesaler in the area. A shipment had arrived of 250 boxes of wild fish. He was fascinated with the amount of fish and the tanks they had there.

“I was like a kid in a candy store,” said Stepnicka.

With all of his excitement, he couldn’t help but bug the owner constantly. “Oh my God, how much is that Leporinus fasciatus in that bag?” said Stepnicka. The owner was baffled by the name Stepnicka spoke, being used to customers only using the common names of the wild fish. But Stepnicka knew all of the scientific names thanks to his hours of reading books on them. This in turn worked well in his favor.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about kid,” the owner replied, “so we’re going to hire you.”

Stepnicka began working weekends during the summer. At only 9 years old, his career with animals began. This fish wholesaler received fish from all over the world and distributed them to different businesses around Southern California. Stepnicka’s job was not to deliver, but instead it was to repair the tanks of the businesses that they shipped the fish to. This meant he removed broken glass from metal-rimmed tanks and prepared them for new glass. The owner then cut the glass and Stepnicka helped him put the glass in.

“It was dangerous work,” he adds.

Over one weekend he and the owner could repair up to 30 tanks. Over the years he was working there, he got experience tending to fish, learning delivery routes and maintaining tanks.

After studying photography, biology and general studies at Rio Hondo Jr. College and Long Beach College, he grew tired of Southern California. Looking to move out of the state, Oregon caught his attention due the lower population and the beautiful scenery.

Stepnicka now resides in Philomath with his many animals; he has more animals at home than he does in his shop. He has over 60 ponds on his property filled with more than 15,000 fish of different species,many exotic birds, reptiles and amphibians.

“Dale’s a fun-loving guy who always thinks about animals before anything else, even before himself,” said Colin Woodbury, a long-time employee at Animal House.

The first thing Stepnicka does when waking up at 4 a.m. every day is go outside and tend to all of his animals. When finished with his animals at home he drives his red pick-up to Animal House at 10 a.m. to begin his day of work. His days don’t end until midnight or as late as 1 a.m.

“My dad told me at a young age,” Stepnicka continues, “‘As long as you buy the animal, maintain the animal, buy all it’s food and all the needs for the animal and keep everything spotless; you can have any animal you want.’ Man, that was the wrong thing to say to me!”

At a Glance

  • Dale Stepnicka
  • Age: 65
  • Hobbies: Tending exotic fresh and saltwater fish, reptiles, amphibians, arachnids, and birds
  • Lives: Philomath, Oregon
  • Education: Rio Hondo Jr. College, Long Beach College
  • Works: Animal House on 646 SW 4th St, in Corvallis, Oregon
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