Even in death, these pets have the right stuff

June 01, 1995|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

Calvin's mouth isn't right. In his day, the fox terrier always seemed to be smiling. But this is tricky business, and you can't always retrieve a long-lost expression. Calvin's coat, however, does feel the same.

"I pet him every morning. He has such soft fur. . . ," says Ida Ehrlich, 69, of Catonsville. "My family cannot stand to look at him, and I don't understand why. I don't think it's repulsive."

When her grown children come to visit, Mrs. Ehrlich gently puts Calvin in a cupboard. Maybe they will never understand one of the most heartfelt and controversial decisions their mother ever made. After the dog died last year, she had Calvin stuffed.

Silly? Morbid? Oddly understandable?

In the 1990s, Ida Ehrlich isn't the only pet lover turning to taxidermy. Though stuffing pets remains a small part of the taxidermy business, Maryland taxidermists say more people are interested in keeping their cats and dogs by their side forever. This doesn't surprise Joyce McClelland, who coordinates pet burials at Dulaney Pet Haven in Timonium.

"Most people involved with their pets do not consider them animals -- they consider them people," she says. "These people are going through the same bereavement process as people go through when they lose a spouse or other family members."

This is the Golden Age of Pets. We have dogs on Prozac and cats undergoing heart transplants. We have pet hotels, pet videos, pet cemeteries and pet psychologists. We are unabashedly smitten with our kittens.

"It's now accepted to be close to a pet and to care for it. Before, it was not accepted," Mrs. McClelland says.

Meaning, the climate is ripe for pet taxidermy, which enjoyed some popularity in the 1940s. Trigger, of course, was the most celebrated animal to be stuffed. Roy Rogers couldn't quite let go of his old pal. Modern literature has even celebrated the practice. In John Irving's "The Hotel New Hampshire," brother Frank in "a miracle of perversion" lovingly restored the family dog, Sorrow. And Sorrow would never leave because as any John Irving fan knows, Sorrow floats.

Maryland taxidermists say the practice died down after the '50s, but has resumed in the 1990s. They have stuffed pet dogs, ferrets, snakes, tarantulas, lizards, turtles, rats and bats.

Cats are stuffed more than any other pet. Typically, people want their stuffed cats and dogs to fit naturally in the animal's bed. Or curled by the fireplace. Or "resting" at the foot of a bed.

At Bob Brown's FTS Taxidermy Studio in Forest Hill, the only animal not stuffed is Bob. Think of the lobby of the Bates Motel. In Mr. Brown's shop, a freeze-dried terrier lies at attention on a dusty work table. The dog needs washing and prepping before the customer will reclaim it. The dog's eyes are closed, and it looks like it's sleeping off a purebred hang-over.

"I prefer to do them sleeping," Mr. Brown says. Customers usually want an expression on their deceased pets, but memorable looks are hard to craft. "It may not look exactly like they envisioned it." And they might want their money back -- although some taxidermists require cash in advance before they stuff pets.

Conventional taxidermy (literally, the "moving of skin") is when the animal is skinned, the hide tanned and then glued to a Styrofoam mannequin. Your basic deer mount.

Marty Hullihen, a taxidermist in Elkridge, says he gets more than two dozen calls every year from people wanting their pets stuffed. But the cost scares them off. He charges $2,400 to stuff a cat and works on about three felines a year.

Bob Brown and a few others use a cheaper and relatively new method for pet taxidermy, called freeze-drying. Mr. Brown, who also averages about three cats a year, packs a large, expensive cylinder with frozen animals. Over several months, a vacuum pump extracts the moisture out of the carcasses. No moisture means no bacteria, which means no rotting. And the animal doesn't go limp -- although it might shrink. Once the fatty tissue is dehydrated, the animal's internal organs are extracted. Glass eyes are added, and the body is filled with fiber. It is posed with stiff internal wires.

"I got a 125-pound Rottweiler in the freezer now. We're going to have to put in a Styrofoam body or it would take me a couple of years to finish," Mr. Brown says. The dog will cost a New Jersey woman about $700.

Mrs. Ehrlich in Catonsville paid about $400 to have Calvin stuffed. Her husband died 16 years ago, which was about the time Calvin came into her life -- permanently. Calvin, a shelter dog, was a fox terrier mix. Suffering from cancer, the dog was put down last year.

Mrs. Ehrlich took the dog home and rocked it in her arms. "I wasn't ready to say good-bye," she remembers. "I could not say good-bye."

She couldn't put Calvin in the ground, either. She grew up in a family of hunters, surrounded by stuffed deer heads and other mounted game. It's a natural way to keep an animal, she thought. Maybe taxidermists could work on a dog?

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