Sugar gliders Laverne and Shirley live in Marble Falls with caregivers Misty Denney and her 6-year-old daughter, Mikayla. When the family goes camping, Highland Lakes Crate Escape moves in to take care of the two marsupials and the family’s rescue dog, Yoda. Staff photo by David Bean
Laverne and Shirley sleep all day, play all night, and love human companionship. The two furry friends are sugar gliders, marsupials native to Australia, who happen to live in a home in Marble Falls. “Mom” Misty Denney takes special care of her rescued babies, making them a salad every night and letting them sleep snuggled under her sweater during the day.
“They travel well,” Denney said. “I usually take them wherever I go, but I can’t take them when I go camping.”
Instead, she calls a pet sitter. In this case, Highland Lakes Crate Escape, founded by longtime entrepreneurs Brenda Morris and Mary Jo Callaway. Many know Morris as the founder of PrintWorks and cycling studio Inner Zen and the owner of Restorative Skin Care. Calloway is director of finance and business administration for the Community Resource Centers of Texas and former owner of Real Deals, a home interior store. They created Crate Escape from personal experience.
“Mary Jo and I decided to start the company because we had incidents with pet sitters that were disasters,” Morris said.
She had trouble finding reliable care for her two rescues, Luna and Pepper. Calloway also needed someone to watch her rescue dog, Mo.
“We decided we needed to recruit people we knew personally who needed something to do and wanted to make a little extra money,” Morris said.
Just as the business got started, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most travel, but Morris and Calloway found their services were still in demand. Even during the worst of the pandemic, they were able to keep five sitters busy, Morris said.
Now, with the first summer vacation in a year firmly underway, they are recruiting sitters while expanding service into Bee Cave. Currently, they cover all of Burnet County, Horseshoe Bay, and Kingsland. The biggest demand is for overnight sitting, sometimes long term.
“We take care of the house, pick up the mail, water the plants, and take care of dogs, cats, birds, fish — we even have a duck as a client,” Morris said.
What makes the Highland Lakes Crate Escape experience special, she continued, is that they provide whatever their customers want, whether it’s staying overnight for a period of time or just dropping in when needed.
“We do what they require us to do,” she said. “It depends on what the individual wants for their pets, though most want us to stay overnight.”
Shannon Turrentine calls on Crate Escape to watch her three Labradors, which she’s had to do a lot lately. When she only had one dog, she took her to a kennel for overnight care. The two new additions to the family are too anxious for that and hate being in a car.
“I like the fact that the dogs get to stay at their own house and follow their routine,” Turrentine said. “These dogs are really close. We like having all our dogs together and on the same routine.”
As with most services these days, the Crate Escape experience begins on its website at highlandlakescrateescape.com. Pet owners fill out an online form and set up a one-on-one appointment with Morris or Calloway.
“We do a meet-and-greet first,” Morris said. “We meet the pets, see where the boxes are kept, where the treats are. We spend about an hour to get to know everyone.”
Next step is to assign a sitter, someone they already know and trust. Two additional requirements: Sitters must pass a background check and, most important, love animals. The third requirement is easily discernible by pet owners, who often request the same sitter each time.
Most requested sitter Stacey Zargallows takes care of Turrentine’s dogs, sending the family daily updates with photos.
“I love animals. You have to love animals to do this job,” Zargallows said. “I love to watch people’s furbabies.”
The year of COVID might not have been the best time to start a business, but it was a great time for Zargallows to move into a new job. She and her husband, Seth, own the Uptown theater in Marble Falls, which has been mostly closed since March 2020.
“We haven’t returned to the theater yet, and we’re not in a hurry to,” Zargallows said. “I’m doing the pet sitting because I’m not doing the theater and because I just really like it.”
COVID-19 lockdowns created a sweet spot for the pet-sitting business now that restrictions are lifting. Being stuck at home with not much to do inspired an uptick in pet adoptions in 2020. Now, stir-crazy pet owners are ready to take off on overdue vacations. Highland Lakes Crate Escape provides a way to do that without having to worry about the animals.
Zargallows understands. She has her own COVID-19 pets. During the pandemic, her family rescued Arcadia, a mixed-breed dog, from a local shelter. She also has a cat named Cielo, which is Spanish for sky or heaven.
“Cielo rescued us during COVID,” Zargallows said. “We named her Cielo because she just fell from the sky.”
Laverne and Shirley were pandemic rescues as well. A friend who had to move away and couldn’t take the sugar gliders with her bequeathed them to Denney about a year ago. Denney had already set up pet sitting with Morris and Calloway for her rescue dog, Yoda, a pug-Chihuahua mix. The marsupials needed more specialized care.
“Brenda and Mary Jo were gracious enough to take on feeding my sugar gliders for me when I was away,” Denney said. “I walked them through the process, explained what to do with the heater to keep them warm, and how to fix their salad. The Crate Escape has been great.”
The secret to success is the attention to detail, all parties agreed.
“People take their pets seriously,” Zargallows said. “So, we have to be serious about it, too.”