THE BREATHLESS ZOO IS HERE!

My book The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing!

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Pets & Mascots

Because our relationships with our animal companions are so intimate, it is all the more unsettling when a bereft owner decides to have a deceased pet stuffed. Some might argue that the desire to stuff a pet reveals a heartfelt attachment that surpasses the typical human-animal relationship. On the other hand, retaining and re-animating the body of a beloved pet would seem to elevate the owner’s emotions over any respect due to the animal. Are stuffed pets surrounded by an eerie aura of control and ownership?  Or is this a rare example of science coming to the aid of our emotional world? 

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Image above: a preserved Snuffy with Leo (left) and Symba (right).  The work of Pet Preservation, a company based in Colorado which uses a technique of freeze drying rather than traditional taxidermy.  Owners can send a photograph along to ensure that their pets are posed in as lifelike a position as possible. The results are uncanny. 

The trend of keeping animals as pets and not just as working companions first became popular among the general public in the nineteenth-century during which time the techniques of taxidermy itself became well known and available to a wide audience. The Victorians loved death relics; it was common to carry a few hairs of a loved one in a locket worn around the neck or to keep some other lasting material vestige of a lover or celebrated hero.  Percy Shelley's heart was dried. Lord Nelson's body was pickled in alcohol. The idea was that "objects are imbued with a lasting sentiment of their owners, one that can be kept in a box or encased behind glass," as Judith Pascoe writes in The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collectors. Preserving pets reveals a similar inclination. When famous animals died in nineteenth century zoos and menageries, they were frequently stuffed and exhibited in natural history museums where they drew curious visitors not as mute examples of their species but as famous personalities.