It is not surprising that a pet store employs a pup. Cassie, a playful 2-year-old chocolate Labrador retriever, serves as the face of new neighborhood business, Zen Pet Retail and Grooming (4500 Magazine St., Suite 5, 504-301-4736; www.zenpetnola.com).
"I opened the business nine months, ago, and she's come to work with me every day," says Belinda Wharton, owner of Cassie and Zen Pet.
A lifelong dog lover, Wharton spent years taking in rescue and foster dogs, as well as supporting the Humane Society of Louisiana. After a lengthy career in medicine, Wharton decided to pursue her passion. She wanted to be a dog trainer but decided to go into the pet retail and grooming business when she saw the need for a shop that provided a holistic and natural diet for pets. Wharton became an advocate for clean, healthy pet diets primarily because of her experience with her former Labrador retriever, who suffered from severe food allergies.
"I wanted to open something in the neighborhood that carried the type of quality food and treats that I would want for my pet," Wharton says. "I believe in the Zen and the yin and yang of your health and your whole body, so I wanted to bring that to the pet world."
In addition to providing healthy food for pets, Zen Pet offers grooming services that use all-natural products. The store also carries an assortment of toys, including the Chuckit fetch games — among Cassie's favorites — as well as collars, bowls and local art.
On cooler days when Wharton keeps the door propped open, Cassie works as Zen Pet's official greeter. Her lively and energetic disposition entices passersby to come inside the light blue store adorned with bright local art.
"She sits in the front door sometimes and kind of looks around," Wharton says. "If somebody comes along, she'll walk out to greet them, and when they bend down to pet her, she turns around and runs into the shop to grab a toy and then they follow her in."
When she's not enchanting customers, Cassie spends her time in the store playing her favorite sport: soccer. With a relentlessly wagging tail, Cassie trots around the store dribbling her lime-green ball, ready to pass it to anyone willing to play.
"It's her favorite activity of all time," Wharton says. "I have customers that come in, and they are just fascinated with it. They'll stand here for 10 or 15 minutes playing soccer with her."
Although she has a lively personality, Cassie is calm when other pets come to the store for grooming appointments or just to visit. Wharton encourages customers to let their pets off the leash because Cassie's nonthreatening temperament typically allows other pets to feel comfortable quickly.
Wharton says Cassie is a wonderful component to Zen Pet and that being able to play with her throughout the day enhances her passion for the business.
"My favorite thing has been just being able to have my dog with me all of the time," Wharton says. "I mean, that's fabulous. You can't have anything better than that — having your pet with you all day long."
Customers seem to agree.
"People come in just to see her and play with her," Wharton says. "She greets people who come in, and she has lots of local dogs come in to visit."
Photos by Cheryl Gerber and Belinda Wharton