Nineteenth-Century Stuffed Pets

As Kathleen Kete writes in The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeting in Nineteenth-Century Paris petkeeping rapidly developed into a mainstream passion in the nineteenth century, a solace against the tensions and tedium of daily life, and a means of communication: “it was the way bourgeois talked about themselves.”  By the mid-nineteenth century, the pet dog in particular had become the cliché accessory to modern life. Breeds of dogs mushroomed. In 1788, the French naturalist Buffon described fourteen breeds. By the end of the nineteenth century, over two hundred breeds could be distinguished. Sheepdogs, Great Danes, bulldogs, collies, proliferating breeds of poodles and lapdogs, each reflecting their owners’ class, style, and intrinsic sensibilities. Dog care manuals, canine coiffure, combs, embroidered collars, and the entire trousseau of clothing likewise emerged to complete the transformation of the dog from a working companion into essential domestic figure. And into this denatured world of fantasy and control, of dog bubble baths and perfumes and little leather booties for stormy days, of pet cemeteries filled with sentimental epitaphs, also add the popularity of having a deceased pet’s head mounted on a plaque, trophy style.

Although stuffed pets were immensely popular in the nineteenth century, the practice was not universally approved. Alfred Bonnardot, inventor of the pet-care book in France, was certainly not a fan. “This mode of remembrance repulses me,” he wrote in 1856. “It is a sad thing to see one’s little companion whose look was once so lively and bright forever immobile and staring. Moreover, if one kept all his successors this way, one would end by having a somewhat cluttered and encumbered museum.”  The mode of remembrance Bonnardot recommended was a photograph or painting taken of the pet “at the time of his brilliant youth,” although just its coat “as long as it had not lost its silkiness” also made a nice bit of memorabilia. Once a pet is coddled and cherished, once the pet has crossed over from animal to quasi-human, you would think there is no return back to animal.

In nineteenth-century England the mania for pets and for preserving their carcasses was a source of constant spoof and lampooning by satirical newspapers like Punch and Fun. A weekly series entitled “About Taxidermy” published by Fun in 1882 gives a good jab at the rising fashion of stuffed pets along with the poor quality of Victorian preservation.

taxid%201882%20pets%202%202.jpg In Episode 5: The Lifelike Pet, Fun exclaims “How beautiful and touching a trait of human character is the untiring affection for, and belief in the lifelikeness of, the effigy of a depart pet!” Fun himself in his jester’s suit encounters a stuffed pet spaniel seated on a stool in a lady’s parlour. Oblivious his bulging eyes and patches, his owner proudly exclaims, “You would never suppose he was stuffed, now, would you?” Even many years later when both the lady and Fun are decrepit and the dog’s eyes have fallen out and his paws sprout straw, the lady still believes in its lifelikeness. The joke is not only the lady’s delusional faith that her pet is physically unchanged. Far more nonsensical is her insistence that her pet still exudes a lively persona: “you notice how he terrifies all the cats,” she exclaims.



More Stuffed Pets, sort of

The poor techniques and ineffective preservatives of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century naturalists hardly encouraged individuals to choose taxidermy as a way to remember their pets. Before the late eighteenth century, if domestic creatures were stuffed, the motive, more often than not, was to preserve their exotic strangeness.

Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections of antiquities, art, and natural specimens became the foundation of the British Museum, kept a young female beaver in his garden. A charming sketch of the beaver roaming freely about an English garden, clambering into a fountain to swim peacefully with flounders, politely gnawing offered bits of bread, was published by Cromwell Mortimer in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1733. Their account, however, abruptly turns tragic. She suffered “Convulsive Fits,” recovered quickly and was well enough until torn apart by a dog. But this is not the end of Sloane’s beaver. Listed among the vertebrate specimens in Sloane’s collection is “The case [skin] of a beaver I kept alive in my garden for some time” and “The inward parts in spirits.” Also listed in Sloane’s catalogues are

  • The skin of the head & hock of the red headed crane from Bengall. given to me by Mr. Dubois. this crane lived in my garden for severall years, & died by swallowing a brass linked sleeve button.
  • A smaller sort of Bustard from Moca in Arabia. It lived in my garden many years and ate flesh & other foods as it had done at Mitcham in Mr. Dubois' garden. who gave it me & had it brought over by one of the coffee ships.
  • Two cataracts taken out of the eyes of a blind small fox from Greenland. He lived many years wt me in my garden was brown in summer & turned white in winter. In April generally the fox shed the white hair unless [until] the last year of its life when being sick the white furr continued till its death not changing as usually.

Admittedly these specimens were primarily objects of scientific curiosity. But is there a touch of tenderness here or am I just imagining it? Despite the raw dismemberment – the skin, cataracts, heads, hocks, and inward parts – these little bits of creatures teamed up with the gentle words “He lived many years wt me in my garden” seem such sad, broken objects. The beaver was beyond help, but surely Sloane would have preferred to keep his garden pets whole. Or maybe they were preserved in one piece, but the moth got at them. My point is simply that until the preservative techniques and chemicals improved, even the most exotic and delightful creatures were remembered only through maudlin bits and pieces. But here is a question: would these failed fragments be more tragic if Sloane were only interested in the creatures’ scientific value or if he was trying to remember favourite pets?  Sloane would have closely examined those cataracts. He would have touched the beaver pelt to understand its texture and quality. Are these fragments more or less gruesome than a full bodied surrogate made from the actual cadaver of a cherished creature?


Stuffed (er.. freeze-dried) Pets

Pets are pets first and animals second. Our pets share our emotional lives; we endow them with the sentiments, intelligence, and dignity usually reserved for humans. Some might argue that the desire to stuff a pet reveals a heartfelt attachment that surpasses the typical human-animal relationship. Yet this suggests a categorical confusion. I f pet were human, taxidermy would be unthinkable. Indeed, t axidermy, like meat-eating, marks an unbridgeable chasm between animals and humans: we don’t stuff or eat our species.  Any confusion of this divide is a sure sign of psychological decay and depravity, a fact famously exploited by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic horror film Psycho and its disturbed killer, Norman Bates, who secretly extends his passion for stuffing birds to his mother. But pets despite the highest degree of emotional attachment are not humans. Why then should retaining and re-animating the body of a beloved pet be a tasteless act of postmortem subjugation as many pet owners believe?

Our attitude towards preserved pets depends on the character of the emotional bond between pet and owner. Consider Dante Gabriel Rossetti and his pet wombat named Top. Top the wombat died on November 6th, 1869 just two months after he joined the famous poet and painter’s equally famous menagerie in Chelsea.
The text reads:  I never reared a young Wombat / To glad
me with his pin-hole eye / But when he most was sweet & fat /
And tail-less, he was sure to die!
Besides Top, Rossetti had a barn owl named Jessie, two armadillos, rabbits, a raccoon that hibernated in a chest of drawers, wallabies, kangaroos, parakeets and peacocks, an Irish deerhound called Wolf, a Japanese salamander, two laughing jackasses, a Canadian woodchuck, and a Pomeranian Puppy called Punch. Rossetti was known to prefer “quaint, odd, or semi-grotesque animals,” and of all his creatures he was especially fond of Top. In fact, he had desired a wombat for some time, and when Top finally arrived, he proved to be, in Rossetti’s own words, “a joy, a triumph, a delight, a madness.” Top followed Rossetti around the house, ate visitors’ straw hats, and got on famously with the rabbits. But Top was lumpish and sickly, and despite the attentions of a dog doctor, he finally succumbed to a mange-like disease. Rossetti’s famous ink sketch of himself tearfully mourning Top is surely satirical but not without genuine sentiment with the loss of his eccentric pet: Rossetti promptly ordered a wombat replacement and had Top stuffed and stationed in the front hall.

There is something cheeky and charming about stuffed Top greeting visitors to the house, perhaps because he was a wombat, perhaps because he was a famous artist’s pet, perhaps most of all because Rossetti faced his loss with humour. In contrast, when an owner is deeply saddened by loss, the desire to preserve a pet in perpetuum takes on a fundamentally different emotional hue. It is quite precisely a depth of feeling which determines the queasiness of a preserved pet: the closer the bond, the more disquieting the preservation. But of course, not all pet owners concur.

Most preserved pets are no longer “stuffed.” Old fashioned taxidermy of mounting skin on moulds had been replaced in recent decades by a method of deep-freezing and dehydration.The process involves freezing the animal in a vacuum chamber. Frozen moisture is slowly extracted from the animal in a gaseous state leaving the tissue, bones, and all internal organs intact and unaltered. Once all moisture (the source of all organic decay) is removed, the animal is returned to room temperature, perfectly and eternally preserved. The process is not quick. Small animals require anywhere from six to ten weeks, while large dogs may take as long as six months. But advocates claim the procedure produces vastly superior results to taxidermy, which requires rebuilding the creature almost from scratch. Plus, freeze-drying allows the owner to choose the exact pose in which the pet will be frozen (most choose a sleeping pose) and - perhaps best of all – many bereft pet owners are comforted by the thought that their pets have not been
An example of a badly stuffed cat by traditional taxidermy
methods.  The creature is actually a wild cat, not a
domestic one, but a bad cat is still a bad cat.
skinned. With the artistic interpretation of traditional taxidermy is eliminated, the impression is that here is the whole pet as it once was, complete with bones and guts. Eyeballs, however, like traditional taxidermy, are replaced with glass replicas.

Letters of appreciation written to Pet Preservation, a Colorado company which freeze dries pets, and Perpetual Pet, whose slogan is “the perfect plan for the perfect pet,” narrate tales of love and friendship during life, total devastation after a pet’s death, and joy at having the pet home again. One owner’s tribute to his dog Sydney describes his sense of loss easing with time “ and having her with me makes it so much easier. Many might find it strange or difficult to look at her in this state; however I view it as the total opposite. Having the ability to touch and pet and reconnect only helps the healing process and encourages positive memories.” Another customer describes the joy of never having to part from her pet raccoon, Suggie: “We will be together forever. I am so thankful for the technology that will allow you to be with me always.” Being “together” always and forever is a constant refrain from pet owners as is the delight of being able to stroke the pet again. lacie_before.jpglacie_now.jpg
To the left: Lacie then. 
Above: Lacie now. Pictures
taken from Pet Preservation's
gallery of preserved pets.

On opening the box from Pet Preservation with beloved Lacie inside, an owner writes,“I couldn't take my eyes off of her. After a couple of hours I began to brush her and talk to her like I used to. To most of you this story sounds very strange. But to me, I believe Lacie never wanted to leave my side in spirit or body.” Other letters describe comfort in the process itself, in knowing that a preserved pet is not simply a stuffed shell: “ We were so distraught when our darling Jenny passed away. We did not want to bury her and lose her forever, and we did not want to have her ‘outsides’ put on over a form as they do in taxidermy. We wanted our whole kitty to be with us forever.”

The notion of a “whole kitty” suggests that the categorical confusion signaled by preserved pets is not simply between human and animal but also, and more problematically, between inside and outside, or, if you will, between the physical and the spiritual. We desire to remember a human or animal companion because of their spirit, their charisma and personality. Once dead, this liveliness departs and all that remains is a meaty shell. Preserving that shell and claiming it to still be the creature disvalues what once was the pet. This confusion of corporeality for presence is either a delusional longing that ignores the inconvenience of death or a lazy, self-indulgent species of remembrance, if indeed it is a remembrance at all. With the whole animal “forever” in attendance, there is no room for memory to function. At the first strike of sadness, the pet is always there to be stroked.