Pets & Mascots
Our animal companions share our emotional lives; we endow them with the sentiments, intelligence, and dignity usually reserved for humans. And because our relationship with pets is 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?
Image: 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. Check out all their work and some poignant customer letters. http://www.petpreservations.com
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.
The history of pet-keeping offers strange insights into the emotional realms of societies. What makes particular animals particularly loved? Parrots, for example, have been our constant companions. Perhaps it is the extraordinary range of their vivid colouring or maybe it is their ability to "talk" to us, to mimic our sounds, to break the monotony of human voices. "Parrots inhabit our cultures because they invade our imaginations," Paul Carter explains in Parrot. "They represent the uncleared jungle of wish fulfilment. They populate a world where all parts speak to one another, and no transformation is prohibited." But why are we so fascinated with the idea of parrots talking to us? Carter considers the question: "when we put parrots in cages and teach them to talk, it's a fantasy of communication with ourselves that we indulge. And something else (far more disturbing): if, as they say, parrots only talk in captivity, what would be the consequence of setting them free? It would not be a triumph for the conservation movement ... but the discovery that all this time we had been talking to ourselves." Do pets gives us the freedom to talk to ourselves?