Metro Weekly

Stuffed Animals

Halloween only comes around once a year, but freeze-drying pets is a creepy year-round business for some

Stuffed Cat  Photo by Silken Photography

Stuffed Cat
Photo by Silken Photography

When a new show on Animal Planet is prefaced by a viewer-discretion warning, you can almost guarantee you’re about to see footage of abused or neglected pets, likely during one of the cable channel’s popular investigative shows, such as Animal Cops.

But that wasn’t the case nearly three years ago when a primetime series launched with the warning: “Material may be disturbing to some viewers. Viewer discretion is advised.” No, the material in question wasn’t promoting antiquated, arguably even inhumane, ideas about dominance and discipline. The Dog Whisperer with Cesar Milan was a National Geographic production, after all.

Instead, the show was American Stuffers, which included a description about the months-long process of freeze-drying animals after they die. It’s not a pretty sight — or read. (Don’t say you weren’t forewarned.) “In order to freeze-dry these pets,” says the show’s lead subject Daniel Ross, “it’s important to take the organs out. They’re full of toxins and bile. … The process of getting these animals into the freeze-dryer is messy to say the least. It’s a lot of gore. Like working at a haunted house all year.”

Thankfully, Halloween only comes around once a year. But freeze-drying pets is a year-round business for people like Ross, who owns a business called Xtreme Taxidermy in Arkansas. Why would anyone do that in the first place? Well, if you can understand why taxidermy in general exists, then it’s not too much of a leap to understand the point of what some call pet taxidermy and others pet preservation — or, if you think it strays just a little too far into cuckoo land, “borderline petophilia.” Just as an obsessive hunter might like a constant reminder of that big game he killed, serving its head on a platter and mounting it above the fireplace, an obsessive pet owner might like to pretend his beloved Bernie never actually died, and is instead propped up in the corner.

Even a description of the end product is creepy. (Another warning.) “Your pet will be positioned in a very lifelike pose. Using their favorite basket, blanket, bed or toys will make the memory even more special,” reads the website of Xtreme Taxidermy.

Just how much demand is there for this? There doesn’t appear to be all that many pet taxidermists out there. A Google search turned up none in our area. The closest appears to be Perpetual Pet, which has a location in Keyser, W.Va., as well as Fort Pierce, Fla. (The selling point here as with Xtreme Taxidermy is wishful thinking, or a kind of denying the inevitable: “Freeze-dry pet preservation…allows pet owners to see, touch and hold their pets, and in a sense, ‘never have to let go.'”)

Pet preservation is not even on the radar of most pet care professionals. On its website, the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories instructs pet owners, “You Have Choices.” But the choices for what to do after your pet dies basically comes down to either cremation or burial, with a third way tailored to the indecisive: “leaving it up to the vet.”

A receptionist at the Dupont Veterinary Clinic laughed when asked if she knows of a local pet taxidermist they recommend to clients. “We’ve never had anyone ask about that,” Jessy Napper says. Similarly, the question stumped a receptionist at City Paws, who instead referred us to two pet crematories they work with. Heavenly Days, a pet crematory in Urbana, Md., offers a whole page of products that can serve as keepsakes for your pet, including frames for a paw print or a pendant that could hold little clips of hair. The business also allows you to choose among some nice urns or wood boxes as receptacles for the ashes. Or, you can have those ashes sprinkled in the one-acre Memorial Pet Garden on Heavenly Days’ leafy property. And think about it: Wouldn’t your dearly departed dog rather be free outside, rather than tossed around like a toy stuffed animal — or Terry Kiser from Weekend at Bernie’s?

Chances are, most visitors will be as turned off by the frozen-in-time sight of a dead cat as Animal Planet viewers were repelled by Animal Stuffers. (You can see just how creepy the finished product looks.) Talk about no demand: The show was cancelled after only five episodes and ratings at the very bottom of the basic cable barrel.

Oh, the irony of Animal Planet giving it the tagline, “America’s favorite pet preservation show.”

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.