When Greater Baltimore radio listeners crave information on schnauzers, Siamese cats, crows or any other beast, they turn to John J. Wazniak Jr., a man so devoted to animals that he used to campaign for the state Senate with a toucan perched on his shoulder.
Every Sunday afternoon Mr. Wazniak can be found at 680-AM on "The Pet Talk Show," usually sharing the two-hour broadcast with a guest. He spends the rest of his working life at Fin Fur & Feather Pet Supermarket, the Ritchie Highway store that he co-owns. Seven days a week, all year round, from behind the counter at Brooklyn Park or the microphone in the Owings Mills studio, it's pets and more pets.
"Sunday used to be my day off," said Mr. Wazniak, a 50-year-old resident of Baltimore Highlands, Baltimore County. But that was before his predecessor on the show, Don Peacock (yes, that really was his name) had a falling out with station management four years ago. Mr. Peacock left the program. The Pet Supermarket was chief sponsor of the show at the time, and Mr. Wazniak did not want to see it go off the air.
"They had no one to do it, so I said, 'I'll give it a try,' " he said.
Of course, Mr. Wazniak was accustomed to public speaking. He already had some show business experience as a frequent guest on "Romper Room," showing up with one animal or another and talking about it. Then there were the political campaigns, also featuring animals.
When the Republican ran for the House of Delegates in 1966, he walked a donkey through the streets of Catonsville promoting "Democrats for Wazniak." He managed to get the stubborn jackass under some control, but lost the election.
He returned to elective politics in 1978 and in 1982 to pursue the 12th District Baltimore County state Senate seat. In those campaigns, Mr. Wazniak often appeared with a toucan or a macaw perched on his shoulder. He told a newspaper at the time that he considered the birds a "real ice breaker" in talking with voters. Unfortunately, as Mr. Wazniak recalled, the birds occasionally broke with campaign etiquette by relieving themselves during public appearances -- once on his state Senate opponent, John C. Coolahan, once on Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
Both Senate campaigns were unsuccessful, but Mr. Wazniak has served on the Republican State Central Committee and as a member of the Anne Arundel County Animal Control Board. He does not rule out a return to politics, but has no plans to do so any time soon. For the foreseeable future, he said he'll stick to pets, his lifelong love.
"I always had pets as a kid: rabbits, frogs, newts, salamanders, dogs, cats," said Mr. Wazniak. His current animal companions are a 3-year-old greyhound named Maggie, who goes with him everywhere, and a 3-year-old Himalayan cat named Gremlin, who stays closer to home.
"It's just that they're so dependent on you," Mr. Wazniak said when asked to explain his affection for animals. "You're so responsible for their life. It's just a reward to see the many ways they say, 'Thank you for taking care of me.' "
And the purpose of the radio show, aside from promoting the Pet Supermarket, is to help people take better care of their pets. Usually, the program features a guest, a veterinarian or other animal specialist. A few weeks ago, the guest was the president of the Ferret and Friends Society of Maryland. Once an expert on Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs showed up.
The questions are as varied as the guest list. Just a few weeks ago, there was the woman from Reisterstown who had found a crow and wanted some advice on how to take care of it. She called Mr. Wazniak on the radio, then drove down to the store to buy a book on crows. Yes, he had one, one of some 1,000 titles in the store's pet care library.
There have been questions on llamas, monkeys, ferrets, even lions and tigers. There was the woman whose teacup poodle (4 pounds dripping wet) had a persistent cough. There was the woman whose neighbor's dog kept using her backyard as a toilet and the woman who wondered how to satisfy an indoor cat's craving for grass (grow some "Kitty Greens," she was advised).
"There's always the question you can't answer," said Mr. Wazniak. "If there's ever been a question I can't answer I tell them to call me at the store Monday morning."
Seven days a week, year-round. A life in the world of pets.