A Pet Lover’s Guide to Milwaukee

Nearly two thirds of Americans live with at least one furry … or scaly … or feathery friend. And we like to think that Milwaukee – with its many dog-friendly bars, pet-themed festivals and cat cafe – has just as much to recommend it to its nonhuman residents as its human ones.

Top Dog

[toggler title=”CLICK HERE to meet Barley, the cutest canine in Milwaukee, and the four runners up.” ]

By Lindsey Anderson

Barley is a lot like other 4-year-olds. He loves camping, hiking and going for rides in his grandfather’s 1972 truck. He also enjoys belly rubs, and sometimes gets so excited around food that he snorts and spins around in circles.

A few months ago, we invited readers to participate in the first-ever Milwaukee Magazine’s Cutest Dog Contest, with the idea that the winner would be awarded a prize package courtesy of Fromm Family Pet Food, a feature in the pages of this magazine and – of course – bragging rights.

MilMag Cutest Dog Contest winner: Barley. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

More than 100 Milwaukeeans submitted adorable photos of and stories about their pups. And while we would have liked to award each of them a prize, after three rounds of voting, we’ve found our top dog.

A 12-pound Yorkie mix, Barley received high marks from both our panel of judges (who voted in the first and third rounds of the contest) and our readers (who voted in the second) for his looks, personality and heartwarming story.

Barley was dropped off at the Humane Animal Welfare Society in Waukesha when he was about 8 months old. He was born with a splayed leg, and his original owners were either unwilling or unable to care for him, so they brought him to the shelter.

That’s where he met Stephanie Brandt. At the time, Brandt – now 27 – was studying animal behavior at Carroll University. She also worked as a caretaker at HAWS. And when she heard that a puppy with a bad leg had been brought into the shelter, she offered to foster him.

“I thought his leg might need to be amputated,” she says, explaining that she wanted to bring him home with her to give him a chance to rest and relax.

Whereas other people looked at Barley and saw a lost cause, Brandt saw a scared, lonely dog in need of a friend. “I have a medical condition too – Loeys-Dietz syndrome,” she says.

A connective tissue disorder, LDS can manifest in myriad ways. In Brandt’s case, it has required four open-heart surgeries and at least 15 other surgeries. She wanted to do her best to make Barley comfortable while waiting for his prognosis.

The news was surprisingly good. Barley’s leg wasn’t causing him any pain. And he could still run and walk almost normally. Brandt could have brought Barley back to HAWS at that point.

But she realized that she’d already begun to think of him as a (small, furry) member of her family and adopted him herself.

In May, Brandt graduated from Carroll. She hopes to one day become a zookeeper, but she’s happy with her job at HAWS for now. And she’s grateful that she’s had Barley by her side over the past few years, accompanying her on trips and even visiting her in the hospital. “Barley has really helped me,” she says.

If Barley could talk, he might say that Brandt has helped him, too.

One of our judges, Jessica Whitney – owner of Central Bark Brookfield and founder of Fairy Tails Dog Rescue – says that she was charmed by Barley, too. “His personality spoke volumes,” she says. “He just seemed like a really happy, well-adjusted dog, and that’s especially encouraging to see in a rescue.”

The other pawesome finalists

Owner Lisa Armaganian
Lady Pickles
Owner Jessee Urbaitis
Owner Sandra Handel
Owners Evann and Ryan Derus

He Let The Dogs Out

[toggler title=”Invoicing, poop tracking and dog walking are all in a day’s work for local entrepreneur Sullivan Kohnke. CLICK HERE to learn how this young business owner gets his kicks.” ]

By Adam Rogan

Every month, Sullivan Kohnke makes hundreds of poop reports.

There’s a notebook stashed in each of Kohnke’s clients’ homes. Inside, the professional dog walker writes notes on what happened on that day’s jaunt: Did your dog chase a squirrel again? Did he pee on a fire hydrant? Did she take a dump?

That knowledge gives peace of mind to dog owners, something that Kohnke takes seriously.

The companies behind smartphone apps Rover and Wag – think Uber, but for dog walkers – are both valued over $600 million, but have also been plagued with distrust. There are dozens of reports of dogs being hit by cars or going missing while in the care of the apps’ representatives.

Sullivan Kohnke and Oscar, a 7-year-old Doberman. Photo by Kenny Yoo.

Kohnke, a native of Fox Point, sought to bridge that trust gap by founding K9-5 Milwaukee as an alternative to the popular but impersonal apps and other dog-walking services.

“I really feel like I’m making a difference,” the 24-year-old business owner says. “How thankful my clients are makes me happy. It makes me feel like I really am providing a service that’s meaningful.”

For Kohnke, it’s all about the human-canine relationship. Clients are paired with Kohnke or one of his handful of employees, and that same person shows up every time, allowing the pooch to bond with the person.

“I could’ve grown my business a little bit faster, but I wanted to get walkers who truly cared,” he says. “I don’t want to be another Wag or Rover.”

Kohnke started walking dogs to pay the bills while pursuing a marketing degree through UW-Madison’s School of Business.

Some of his classmates now have jobs on Wall Street. Cushy job offers came Kohnke’s way too, but the idea of working behind a desk seemed too sedentary for the manbun-sporting amateur beach volleyballer.

“I was kind of lost,” Kohnke remembers of his post-graduation mindset. “I had applied, got a couple offers, but that wasn’t what was going to make me happy.”

Kohnke goes home at night to a dog-free home, but he talks about the ones he walks as if they were his pals.

For instance, take Oscar, a 7-year-old Doberman, whose “totally mellow” demeanor shows a spike of excitement when he gallops to the apartment door to greet Kohnke. He refers to Oscar as “my friend,” and to their thrice-weekly hourlong walks as hang-out time.

“He makes a difference. We all trust him,” says Oscar’s owner, Debra Conta, who first heard about K9-5 Milwaukee through one of her neighbors.

“The more clients I get, the more referrals I get,” notes Kohnke.

The business serves a varied clientele. There are retired couples like Conta and her husband who aren’t quite as energetic as their canines. Vacationers make for good on-call work, as do those whose jobs require travel. And young professionals who work all day need someone to take their dogs outside for 15-minute “pit stops,” which only cost between $14 and $15.

Although the dress code may be casual – Kohnke wears sneakers and sweatshirts most days – the business is totally buttoned up: It’s an LLC that’s fully bonded and insured. Payment, usually between $28 and $30 per hour, is carried out through checks or online through services like PayPal and Venmo.

As the only full-time employee of his business, Kohnke goes on at least 50 walks a week. His Apple Watch usually tracks around 15 miles of exercise daily.

After his walk, Oscar returns home spent.

That’s exactly what his owners want. Conta says, “A tired dog is a good dog.”


  • 7:45 a.m. Wake up. Make bacon, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich.
  • 8:45 a.m. Walk Rocky, a poodle mix, in Glendale; chat with his owners. Same goes for Gigi in Fox Point.
  • 10:00 a.m. Get text from employee Emma. Her morning walk went well.
  • 10:30 a.m. Drive south to Whitefish Bay to walk Chewie in the pouring rain. Chewie does his business. Bring him home, dry off, give treat, leave note for owners.
  • 11:10 a.m. Let Winnie, a Cavapoo puppy, outside for a few minutes. Then walk her roommate Navy, a chocolate Lab, by the lake. Don’t let Navy catch any squirrels. Leave note.
  • 11:40 a.m. Walk Maggie the poodle in Bayside.
  • 12:15 p.m. Drive to Walker’s Point. Let Scarlet out. Administer medicine and feed her a probiotic in broth. Text owner, letting her know Scarlet got her pill on time.
  • 12:50 p.m. Let out Roscoe, a very docile greyhound, for 15 minutes to do his business.
  • 1:10 p.m. Downtown at Cudahy Tower, walk Odin the French bulldog. Odin makes a friend outside, another Frenchie. Write in notes: “They were chatting it up.” Also at Cudahy Tower: walk Dalia, Calvin, Garth, Oscar and Birdie.
  • 3:30 p.m. Take 90-minute break. Schedule consultation. Plan a couple future walks with sporadic clients.
  • 5:00 p.m. Last-minute walk with Van Gogh in the Fifth Ward. The artist’s owner needs walks only occasionally when she works late.
  • 6:00 p.m. Meet with a new client in Fox Point. Schedule first few walks.
  • 7:15 p.m. Go home. Make a pizza. Watch whatever sports are on TV tonight.

Gimme Shelter

Photo by Thomas Park
[toggler title=”To learn how local no-kill organizations are connecting pets with homes, CLICK HERE.” ]

By Melanie Lawder

When Valerie Hirsch walked into Happy Endings cat shelter in Milwaukee seven years ago, she thought she’d take a look around and maybe pet a few kitties. 

Ten minutes later, she developed an instantaneous kinship with a 10-year-old calico named Minerva.

“She put both paws around my neck, and I said, ‘Well OK. We’ll pick her up Saturday,’” Hirsch recalls. “That was it, that’s all I needed.”

Photo via Getty Images

Minerva had previously lived with an elderly couple until one of the partners passed away. The cat was then dropped off at Happy Endings, where she was given a second shot at a family.

“She sleeps with me right in bed,” Hirsch says about Minerva. “She’s just a really good girl – I can’t imagine my life without her now.”

Minerva’s happily-ever-after story is one that is commonplace at no-kill organizations in the Milwaukee area. Older cats like Minerva can be difficult to place because the prospect of raising fresh-faced kittens appeals to many adopters. But places like Happy Endings ensure that animals of all ages – whether they’re sick, have special needs or are working through a behavioral issue – are supported too.

Photo via Getty Images

For years, these groups have been connecting animals with new owners – all while adhering to the philosophy that treatable animals should not be euthanized due to space constraints or other fixable issues.

They believe that animals deserve the opportunity to be adopted into a new family or find another happy home. Visit any of their websites, and you’ll find evidence of the profound impact they have on the lives of animals (and their humans).

“A creature that loves you unconditionally just changes you,” says Darlene Rager, vice president of media relations at Happy Endings.

“We really try to think outside of the box and exhaust all options to make sure we’ve done everything possible to help each animal,” says Heather Gehrke, executive director at the Elmbrook Humane Society, which helps approximately 1,100 animals get adopted annually.

Eric Lengell on the day he adopted little Vasco at Happy Endings.

In some cases, the animals have lost their owners through unfortunate circumstances – like death or divorce. In others, they were abandoned or living on the street.

Regardless, they require extensive treatment and care before they can be adopted. Such treatment includes blood work, spay and neuter surgeries, shots and disease testing. Emergency care may also be in the cards for these animals, who sometimes need surgeries or other serious procedures.

“It’s hard to ask somebody that does not yet have a bond with an animal to take on thousands of dollars of medical expenses at the time of adoption,” Gehrke says. “We work to take care of those things.”

Happy Endings – which facilitates around 200 adoptions per year – spends around $70,000 to $80,000 annually in discounted medical expenses, says Rager, noting that the nonprofit takes a loss on every adoption. Approximately 90% of the cats who arrive at the shelter have never seen a vet, according to the group.

Magnolia waiting to be adopted. Photo courtesy of Happy Endings.

In addition, the Milwaukee shelter also brings in a behaviorist to work with semi-feral and antisocial cats. One of the most valuable forms of support that no-kill organizations can give animals is the time and patience they need to get better. Some cats at Happy Endings live at the shelter for years before being welcomed into a new home.

For Cats Sake, a no-kill network of foster homes in the Milwaukee area, in the past has trapped cats to get them off the street and provide them with needed medical attention, says Jacquie Hackett, the group’s president. Last winter, after trying many times, the organization trapped a small and sick orange-coated feline in Enderis Park and nursed it back to health. Hackett is happy to report the cat is in good hands: He was adopted by a woman who “said he’s chubby and fat now and doing wonderful.”

These organizations also provide outreach to ensure their animals are connected with fitting homes. Through social media and other communications platforms, they work tirelessly to get the word out about their animals and catch the attention of the right individual seeking a pet. Because, if they do, the end result can be transformative – for both the animal and the person. “The work they do makes a real difference,” says Hirsch, Minerva’s cat mom. “This little lady has changed my life.”

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Wild Cats

FERAL FELINES. Free-roaming cats. Unsocial kittens. These animals’ welfare can often be overlooked.

But the Milwaukee-based Urban Cat Coalition is here to help them.

Photo by Mukesh Jan


The local no-kill organization is dedicated to harmlessly reducing the region’s free-roaming cat population by trapping cats, sterilizing them and then releasing them back to where they were found.

By spaying and neutering these felines, the Urban Cat Coalition hopes to contain the area’s homeless cat population and, ultimately, the number of cat deaths.

The trap-neuter-release method is considered by organizations like the Humane Society to be a humane technique to guard against overpopulation. Left unchecked, felines can reproduce at a rapid rate – and there’s not enough room in shelters to house them. Approximately 860,000 shelter cats are euthanized in the U.S. each year, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Since 2016, the Urban Cat Coalition has trapped, neutered and then returned more than 250 cats, facilitated the adoption of more than 360 cats and trained many private citizens in the trap-neuter-return method so they can help contain the feline population in their own neighborhoods, according to executive director Sarah Fenske.

Every month, the organization holds classes on how to trap cats, Feske says. The Urban Cat Coalition lends out the traps for free and works with the Wisconsin Humane Society, which spays and neuters the animals. Once the cats are fixed, they are held for recovery and their ears are tipped to signify they have been spayed or neutered.

If they are adoptable, the Urban Cat Coalition works to find them homes. If not, they are returned to their home turf, where they are free to roam.[/alert][/toggler]

Tails on Trails

[toggler title=”CLICK HERE for a breakdown of the Milwaukee area’s best and brightest dog-friendly parks.” ]

By Claire Hanan

If there’s one thing puppy class should have taught you, it’s that a well-exercised puppy is a happy puppy. Lucky for you, Milwaukee now has more exercise opportunities than ever, thanks to the robust array of Milwaukee County-run dog parks and our state and local trail systems. These all pass the sniff test.

Photo courtesy of Visit Milwaukee

In the water

FOX BROOK PARK: The most prominent feature here is its former quarry – a popular swimming hole with a white sand beach, paddleboat rentals and snacks. The man-made lake also features a small but mighty dog beach so your pup can practice paddling or retrieving. Encircling the quarry is nearly a mile of paved trail perfect for a walk both pre- and post-swim while almost 200 acres of surrounding wetlands provide the eye candy.

  • Requires county registration or one-time fee

GRANVILLE DOG EXERCISE AREA: Granville’s trails can’t be beat. Hilltops and winding wooded dirt paths make up the bulk of the park so your pooch can work out his olfactory senses as much as his paws (a good sniff session is like reading the newspaper, after all). Strong doggy paddlers will also appreciate that the Menomonee River borders the single unfenced side of the park and offers the perfect opportunity for a cool-down dip.

  • Requires county registration or one-time fee

HARRINGTON BEACH STATE PARK: About 35 miles north of Milwaukee is Harrington Beach State Park, a gem of a state park just east of Belgium that boasts about a mile of Lake Michigan frontage. Near its southern beach, the park offers one of the only sanctioned dog beaches in this part of the state. Bring sandwiches and a couple bottles of Black Husky’s Pale Ale to make a day of it because a dog-friendly picnic area is just a short walk from the beach.

  • Worth the drive
  • State Park admissions pass required


WAUWATOSA’S MENOMONEE RIVER PARKWAY: The Menomonee River cuts through much of Tosa, though for many years its paved parkway only ran from Swan Boulevard east toward Hart Park. In 2015, the county began extending the parkway north to Congress Street – a safe, scenic path for runners, strollers and four-legged friends. On the newly improved 4-mile route, you can enjoy the babbling river and surrounding foliage, which includes at least four kinds of oaks, as well as elms, birches, maples and black cherry trees.

  • Free

HANK AARON STATE TRAIL: With splashy murals, the Menomonee River, the native plants in Three Bridges Park and a chance to admire the historic Soldiers Home, this trail is great for your dog – thanks to its smoothly paved path – and even better for you for the mental stimulation. Jump on the trail in Mitchell Park, just behind The Domes, and head west toward the Soldiers Home for a one-way trip that clocks in at 1.75 miles.

  • Free

OAK LEAF IN WARNIMONT PARK: While humans may overlook Warnimont in favor of its southern neighbor Grant Park, your pup knows better. The Oak Leaf Trail winds through both lakeside parks, but in addition to stunning vistas, Warnimont has the added bonus of a fenced dog park, just in case your pup needs to unleash that last burst of energy.

  • Free

LAPHAM PEAK: You and your fur baby could spend an entire weekend exploring the 17 miles of trails that loop through this unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest, a reminder of our glaciated past and home to Waukesha County’s highest elevation. Prepare for its wooded trails with tick protection, and know that the park is especially popular in fall.

  • Worth the drive
  • State Park admissions pass required


Runway Dog Park. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee County Parks.

MINOOKA PARK’S DOG EXERCISE AREA (DEA): Nineteen acres is plenty even if your pup is a runner. Waukesha County’s Minooka DEA offers a mix of wooded walking paths and hilly open spaces, perfect for your canine explorer.

  • Requires county registration or one-time fee

CURRIE PARK DOG PARK: Free Fido in Currie’s 10-acre park for large dogs or in the 1.5-acre area for the shorties. With more open space than trails, this park is ideal for the most playful pups and social butterflies.

  • Requires county registration or one-time fee

RUNWAY DOG PARK: The Big Kahuna of the county-run parks, these 26 acres of airport-owned land are expansive in a way that’s hard to imagine until you’re there. Its size means you can carve out a corner of your own for a game of fetch, or help your pup find a new pack of furry friends.

  • Requires county registration or one-time fee

JEFFERSON COUNTY DOG PARK: Dog mecca is just a 45-minute drive from Downtown Milwaukee and offers 109 acres of space for Fido to frolic. A hand-powered water pump provides plenty of fresh water for your pup’s cool-down, and wooded trails mixed with maintained grass fields provide lots of space for play. Find a perch at one of the picnic tables that dot the park or head just 9 miles west to try Tyranena Brewery’s deliciously funky brews and dog-friendly beer garden.

  • Worth the drive
  • Requires county registration or one-time fee
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The Catwalk

By Patricia McKnight

PEOPLE OFTEN GAWK when my friends and I hit the streets.

No, we’re not celebrities, although my friends slink around as if they are. We get attention because my pals are a pair of fairly large felines – on leashes.

My kitties seem to enjoy these jaunts, which made me wonder why more people don’t take their indoor cats out for a stroll. So I asked a professional. Manette Kohler, small animal veterinarian at Helping Hand Veterinary Behavior Counseling, shared her expert advice.

Photo via Getty Images
Is leash-walking a cat a good idea?

Taking a cat for a walk can provide physical exercise. It could also provide mental stimulation.

Do you have any suggestions for people who want to start walking their cats?

Slowly allow the cat to get used to the harness or leash and then work on just following the cat about. Once they are used to the equipment, take them out for short exposures, then gradually build up to letting the cat walk more if they like and just follow them as they explore.

What should you do if a dog approaches?

The key here is prevention. Avoid areas with dogs, including streets where dogs are being walked.

Photo via Getty Images

Where The Wild Things Are

[toggler title=”Some people prefer creepy and crawly to cute and cuddly… for some reason. CLICK HERE to enter their world, and how to get your pets to talk for just $3.99.” ]

By Matt Hrodey

A baby tarantula about the size of a snowflake is crawling across Victoria Schuster’s hand, and it doesn’t bother her a bit. She works at Gary’s Pet Jungle in Bay View (2857 S. Howell Ave.), a small pet store harboring quite a few surprises. Founded in 1994 by Gary Johnson – whose bearded likeness has been painted across the front of the store – the Pet Jungle is the last remaining independent, full-line pet store in Milwaukee. And since its opening, the age of information has fueled interest in exotic pets like tarantulas.

On a recent weekday afternoon, the animals and exotics room at Gary’s was bustling with shoppers, spiders, yummy rodents and strange creatures. A $199 Goliath birdeater tarantula (not just a name), the largest spider in the world by weight, was relaxing under a stone shelter in its plastic enclosure. He sat not far from an intimidating Vietnamese centipede, which can grow to the length of a forearm. And then there were the emperor scorpions and a tempestuous little colony of Madagascar hissing cockroaches.

Schuster grabbed a small roach and tossed it near the big tarantula, which attacked with a flurry of hairy legs. She also filled its small water dish. Despite being exotic, exotic reptiles and insects are relatively easy to care for, she says, and don’t need or give as much attention as dogs and cats. “It’s about watching them thrive.”

Pet Sounds

Photo via Getty Images
Step aside, Snapchat. There’s a new video app in town. My Talking Pet, as its name implies, allows users to animate videos of their pets, so that they appear to be talking. Or singing. Or dancing around in tiny top hats. It costs $3.99. But our editor-in-chief and publisher, who on one occasion used it to spread a “get out the vote” message via her cat, says it’s worth every penny.



“Pet Project” appears in the July 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning July 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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