Take this dog and stuff it
I’m as absorbed with taxidermy and its variations as the next guy (unless that next guy is Charles “Speedy” Atkins), especially when it comes to using it to preserve our pets.
I was fascinated enough to make it a chapter in my book, and curious enough to take a peek at “American Stuffers,” Animal Planet’s new series that each week follows people who are getting their pets, to use the common but erroneous nomenclature, “stuffed.”
But do I want to watch it every week? No.
“Stuffers,” I think, falls into the ever-expanding category of shows we watch to see humans behaving bizarrely — so strangely that we, by comparison, feel normal. You know the ones I’m talking about, those that focus on dysfunctional, obsessive, extreme behavior, like hoarding, kiddie beauty pageants, excessive tattooing, or just the travails of being a punk on the shore of New Jersey.
Flipping the remote these days, it sometimes seem as if Jerry Springer is choreographing what’s on every channel.
The Learning Channel, despite its name, has become one of the worst offenders — offering nearly a steady diet of human dysfunction. Animal Planet, despite its name, is getting more that way too.
I’ll admit that I’ve always been drawn to the bizarre behavers among us, but what makes them interesting to me is why they’ve become that way and the ramifications of it. Those aspects, and any context at all, are almost always missing from these shows, be they weekly series or pseudo-documentaries. Rather than advancing knowledge, they simply gawk. They just put the camera on the oddballs, and we learn nothing except what we already knew: People are weird.
Net gain: Zero.
“American Stuffers” centers on a taxidermy shop in Romance, Arkansas — one the show incorrectly describes as the only one of its type — where Daniel Ross freeze dries dead pets for bereaved owners.
Ross is founder and owner of Xtreme Taxidermy, which he operates with assistance from his wife LaDawn and his three sons. There seems a steady, sideshow-like stream of customers, and a steady stream of drama — real and manufactured — as he freeze dries pets and unveils them in their finished poses to their owners.
The show airs Thursdays at 10 p.m.
“While nothing can bring back these animals, Daniel and his artistic team attempt to come as close as science and art can allow,” Animal Planet says on the show’s website. “They recreate the illusion of life, and clients return home with their pets for eternity.”
That science these days allows much more than freeze-drying is shown in my book, “DOG, INC.: How a Collection of Visionaries, Rebels, Eccentrics and Their Pets Launched the Commercial Dog Cloning Industry.”
But the book also looks at how, through history, our inability to part with our pets has led us down some other strange roads, including stuffing them.
“Stuffing,” in the 1800s, was an apt name for the process. Almost every town had a tanner, who would cater to hunters seeking to memorialize their kills. They would remove the innards and sew up the carcasses, filling them with rags, straw, paper and cotton, then use sticks and brooms to beat the animal into something resembling its original shape.
By the early 20th century, taxidermy had become far more sophisticated. Mounts of the original animal were made of wood, wire and later plastic, and the animals pelt was stretched over it.
Freeze drying, an invention of the 1970s, began being used by some taxidermists by the late 1990s, including one in West Virginia, Perpetual Pet, who was featured in my book. The process involves removing the animal’s organs, posing it in the desired position, freezing it and then putting it in a vacuum chamber that removes all the moisture.
The point, as with Victorian-era pet portraiture (sometimes painted after an animal was deceased), as with modern day “digital photo urns,” and as with the most technologically advanced method of all, cloning, is the same — to keep at least a semblance of a departed animal around.
It was while researching “DOG, INC.” that I came across the story of Charles “Speedy” Atkins, who, though he died in 1928 in Paducah, Kentucky, remained above earth, intact and upright (when leaned against a wall) well into the 1990s.
Atkins was an active 50-year-old bachelor. His nickname was said by some to have stemmed from his work habits at a local tobacco factory, but others maintain it described his way with the ladies. He drowned one day while fishing on the Ohio River.
His body was taken to the black-owned funeral home in Paducah operated by A.Z. Hamock, who, inspired by methods the Egyptians used on mummies, had been experimenting with ways to preserve bodies for longer periods.
Speedy wasn’t stuffed, but he was pumped full of Hamock’s secret long-lasting embalming fluid. Hamock’s motivations were practical: Preserving a body with the fluid would allow him to wait for the families of his clients, usually poor, to raise enough money for the funeral.
No family ever came for Speedy, though. And time didn’t reclaim him either. Hamock died in 1949, taking his secret formula with him. But Speedy Atkins stayed above the ground, pickled and preserved, for the next 66 years, most of which he spent stashed in a closet, though funeral home operators would sometimes put him on display for tourists.
He was finally buried in 1994. It was time, Hamock’s widow, Velma, decided. “Sixty-six years is a long time to be with somebody,” she said in an interview with Jet magazine, which covered the funeral.
“It was all an experiment, but it was a success,” she said. “Speedy’s never been duplicated, he’s the only one that we know of. He’s not stinking, nothing. The amazing thing is he hasn’t lost all of his features. He doesn’t look like a corpse laying up in the casket for 66 years.
“I never saw a dead man bring so much happiness to people.”
(Freeze dried pet photos of Tiny and Cisco, courtesy of Perpetual Pet.)
Posted by jwoestendiek January 25th, 2012 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: american stuffers, animal planet, animals, arkansas, behavior, bereavement, bizarre, bodies, cadavers, charles atkins, cloning, corpses, customes, daniel ross, death, dog death, dogs, dysfunction, grief, human, kentucky, loss, memorials, memory, paducah, perpetual pet, pet death, pet preservation, pets, preservation, preserving, semblance, speedy, stuffed, stuffers, stuffing, taxidermist, taxidermy, television, xtreme taxidermy