2012-04-05 / 15 Minutes

World travelers establish business that’s for the birds — and other creatures

BY KITTY CAYO Florida Weekly Correspondent

Nan and Guillermo Herrera hand-feed a baby bird still in Mom & Pop’s nursery. 
KITTY CAYO / FLORIDA WEEKLY Nan and Guillermo Herrera hand-feed a baby bird still in Mom & Pop’s nursery. KITTY CAYO / FLORIDA WEEKLY He calls her “Smarty Pants.” She calls him “Beauty,” not ordinary endearments, but then the lives of Guillermo and Nan Herrera, owners of the new Mom & Pop Pet Shop in Punta Gorda, are far from ordinary.

When they were first introduced 30 years ago at Nan’s parents home in Fort Lauderdale, there wasn’t a connection. But when they saw each other again two years later, Guillermo was immediately smitten. For Nan, it took until later that night when she found herself dancing with the confident Guillermo at a club that she felt a certain spark between them. “That was it,” she says. “We haven’t been apart for 28 years.”

Nan’s family owned and operated pet shops in Pennsylvania before she moved to Florida with her mother at age 17. Her early experience with animals developed into a passion for the natural world.

Guillermo first came to the States from Colombia as a high school foreign exchange student. His Italian host family in Boston took him into the fold.

“They were this big happy family and they made their own wine and we had huge meals at this long table just like you’d see in a movie or something.”

When they met, Nan was engrossed in a successful career as a computer programmer. Vacations were spent in Colombia, and during one of their trips to the rain forests of Latin America, Nan announced, “I want to live here.” Over cocktails under the thatched roof of a Colombian cantina, they met an architect who drew up plans for their house on a napkin, and their future was sealed.

Colombia, rich in biological diversity, maintains 51 reserves similar to the national parks of the United States. In 1997, The Herreras and their 11-year-old son were living at the edge of one of them, a habitat seen by most Americans only on the Discovery Channel. Most of their neighbors, simple farmers in an underdeveloped country, had never met an American. They were fascinated with the family’s microwave and washing machine and were especially intrigued by Nan, the “Blondie.” Though the neighbors were very poor, they brought Nan gifts of tamales and bananas. In return, she baked for them — loaves of banana bread and their favorite treat, chocolate chip cookies.

The Herrera’s “lived off the land,” growing coffee beans, bananas and passion fruit. Guillermo sold their bounty at the local market, learning the wily ways of local brokers. Nan became familiar with native animals and cared for a menagerie of dogs, cats, snakes, monkeys, toucans, parrots and an agouti — a large rodent related to the guinea pig.

But, there was a civil war under way in Colombia, and not all the locals were friendly. The U.S. State Department referred to them as “narco-terrorists.” Locals called them guerrillas. Despite having to pass through a “re zone,” Nan was determined to seek out the most primitive natives, Indians who lived deep in the jungle. Through a chance meeting and connection with a river guide, the Herreras did encounter the native people. The few hours they spent with them were uneasy, Nan says, but she’ll never forget how their apparent leader “brushed our skin with some kind of plant frond and blew smoke in our face to remove any bad spirits.”

The Herreras’ Colombian adventure lasted about three years. Returning stateside, they became involved in real estate — buying, restoring and selling homes first in San Antonio. Nan used her software knowledge to set up alerts for properties within the U.S. that showed the most promise. Those results led them back to Florida, and eventually to Punta Gorda.

The Herreras were struck by the warm welcome they received in Punta Gorda. While working on a house, neighbors showed up with food and offered them a ride on their boat. During the holiday season, they wandered down to Laishley Park and were struck by the “Norman Rockwell” kind of town. Nan turned to Guillermo again and declared, “I want to live here.”

When they had trouble finding special food for their Pacific parrot, Martini, they thought Punta Gorda needed a pet shop, and in just a few weeks, they opened the doors to Mom & Pop’s. In addition to the well-stocked shelves of food, toys and pet accessories, the Herreras sell birds and can answer any question concerning these exotic pets.

And they may be willing to tell a few tales of their Colombian adventures, too. ¦

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