After you’ve been in a Keys community for a couple of years, you begin to hear stories about “one of those families that has been in the Keys forever.”
Joe Whalton was born in Key West in 1922. He met his future wife, Sally, during their high school days in Miami Beach.
She came south to Florida with her family from Detroit during the Great Depression in search of a fresh start.
“Daddy said if we were going to starve, at least we would be warm,” she laughed.
In the late 40s, as WWII came to an end and soldiers were able to return home to their families, the Whaltons, who’d just started their lives together, joined a group of fellow dog lovers and formed the Greater Miami Dog Club.
Sally said Joe practically fell into his career as a professional handler in dog shows.
“We were breeding boxers and poodles back then, and if you were going to have poodles, you have to learn how to clip,” she explained.
Their pasts are filled with many recollections about their beloved animals. For Joe, even the onset of Alzheimer’s can’t extinguish the memories of one of his most prized dogs, Vickie.
“She was just an ‘A’ number one dog, that one you couldn’t do without,” he remembered.
“I loaded her in the car with some other professional handlers and we drove all the way to Jacksonville for a show there. She got 199 out of 200 possible points because the judges told me they couldn’t give a perfect score!”
Whalton Kennels, which Sally lamented was located just 40 feet behind their home in Dania, offered boarding, training and grooming services.
In 1963, the couple took a leap of faith and opened a pet shop and grooming business in the shops currently located across from the Marathon Walgreens. But with a sparsely populated community at the time, the couple decided their business would have a better chance of survival in Key West.
Whaltons Pet and Aquarium Supply operated out of quaint space on Flagler Ave. But as Joe’s mother’s health began to fade, the couple decided to move back to Miami and got by on the income produced from Whalton’s Dog Grooming Shop. The family lived in an apartment adjacent to the shop.
Sally laughed that Joe’s tenure in any place usually lasted about three years before the family was on the road again.
“If we made it past three years, then we were usually there for about seven or so,” she remembered fondly.
Time to Grow
In 1979, the couple finally made their way back to Marathon where they reincarnated Whalton’s Pet and Aquarium Supplies and Dog Grooming just a few doors down from its original location.
A few years prior, Ed Kilheffer moved from Virginia Beach to Big Pine Key.
He and his wife at the time owned a healthy tract of land in Pine Key Acres on which he had a large pond to populate with fish.
“Being in the business was something that just happened,” said the current owner of Whalton’s Pet Shops, whose operations today consist of locations in Marathon and Big Pine.
When his wife heard the pet shop was up for sale in 1983, she implored her husband’s help.
Ed admitted that at first, he didn’t take the new business venture too seriously.
“I had a job at the time,” he explained. “I moved down here and was working in heavy equipment construction.”
A collection of antique gold and silver equated to half the total sale price, and Ed said Joe and Sally agreed to hold the title to the store until it could be paid off completely.
It only took a couple of years before Ed became more involved in the day-to-day operations of the business, and in the mid 80s, he sold his heavy construction equipment to his best friend and took the check directly to the bank.
“We bought into Gulfside Village when it was just a hole in the ground,” Ed remembered.
That space, an expansion from the store’s original location at the corner of 109th Street and U.S. 1 Oceanside, was a mere 1000 square feet.
When the business and inventory warranted purchasing an adjacent unit, the store doubled in size and Ed said his life was changed forever.
“I was running back and forth between the Marathon and Big Pine stores, so I decided to manage the administrative part from my home office.”
The bird named Spock
He still usually makes a daily appearance at the Big Pine store, located in the Winn Dixie Plaza, with the store’s newest mascot, a palm cockatoo named Mr. Spock, in tow.
In 1985, Jeannie Ketcher, one of Ed’s newest employees at the time, sold her husband-to-be a cockatiel.
“When I started working here, we were still dealing with captured birds instead of hand feeding them and raising them from the birth like we do now,” Jeannie explained. “Now we have happy birds that are incredibly socialized.”
In fact, one of the most noticeable items upon entering either store is the “free-range” macaws, cockatoos and love birds perched on the shoulders of nearly all the staff. Each of the ladies call the birds by name and discuss their behaviors over the course of the day. They know the personalities of the birds like mothers know the personalities of their children – unique and varied.
“I got really lucky that everybody working for me does their job and does it to a T,” Ed said.
Debbie Niccum, the manager of the Marathon store, simply worked her way into the position she currently holds. Similarly, Sandi Pipock has worked at and managed the Big Pine store for nearly two decades.
“People come here on vacation from all over the world, and when they come in the store, they’ll often say their experience with the birds was one of the most memorable of their entire vacation,” Jeannie boasted.
Ed, who has since found true love with Wendy, welcomes the Whaltons into their home on Big Pine each time a hurricane threatens the Keys. They often take the time to reminisce over the friendship that’s been decades in the making.
“Sally continued to work at the store part time for several years after they sold the business to me,” Ed explained.
“She’s such an unassuming person that she would just do anything anybody asked, and she continued in that capacity until she decided it was time to spend more time at home with Joe. Whenever they were in the store together and someone would ask Joe a question, he’d always point in Sally’s direction and say, ‘Ask her. She’s the smart one!’ He always said she was really the brains behind the operation.”
The Whaltons’ stamp on the Middle and Lower Keys communities stretches back nearly a century – there’s even a street in Key West running perpendicular to White St. that bears their name – and thanks to a community of animal lovers, their legacy will continue for years to come.
Car & Family
Joe and Sally Whalton operated at kennel through the 40s and 50s in South Florida. They are pictured with their two oldest children, Susie and Joey.
Joe and Sally returned to his native Key West in the early 60s to open an aquarium supply and dog grooming shop.
Joe Whalton moved his family back to Miami Beach to care for his mother after she became ill. He successfully supported his family while still pursuing his passion of grooming and caring for dogs.
In 1983, Ed Kilheffer purchased the Whalton’s pet shop and continues the mission of providing quality goods and services to pet lovers throughout the Keys.
Jeannie Ketcher has worked at Whalton’s for more than two decades. She said tourists who often visit their store say handling and interacting with the birds is one of the most memorable experiences of their entire vacation.
Joe & Sally Whalton
Joe and Sally Whalton, both 88 years old, enjoy, just as they have their entire married lives, “doing everything together.”
Ed Sandi Spock
Whalton’s Pet Shops current owner, Ed Kilheffer, with his prized palm cockatoo, Mr. Spock and longtime employee and Big Pine store manager, Sandi Pipock.