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Even in death, these pets have the right stuff

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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?

Mrs. Ehrlich went through the telephone book and found FTS Taxidermy. Mr. Brown spent five months working on Calvin, which was then hand-delivered.

"I cried when I saw him because he was back in my life," Mrs. Ehrlich says.

Mr. Brown says he usually tries to talk people out of having their pets freeze-dried. For one thing, if there's a live pet in the house, it might tear into the dead one. And people have great expectations for the finished product. "I can't make their pets look like they did in their prime."

Stick your pet in the freezer for a couple of weeks or months and really think about it, he tells people. But some folks are adamant. A woman came in his shop a few days ago with a turtle draped around her neck.

"She was rubbing the shell . . . the turtle was dead, you know," Mr. Brown says.

The turtle was 8-year-old Albert, beloved reptile of the Canizaleses of Aberdeen. Enoc Canizale, 16, had the turtle for half his life. It had been a birthday gift. When Albert died this month, Enoc's mother decided she didn't want it buried. The family was used to having the turtle (and fish, birds and dogs) around the house, so she called FTS Taxidermy. The turtle will be ready in September. The job will run about $150.

"Why let it all get rotten in the ground when you can keep it and look at it?" Enoc says. It's hard to let go. "It's like having a dog

for a long time."

Or a cat. Jerry Fox and Mary Allen of Columbia had Jasmine for 17 years. When the cat died last year, the couple checked out area pet cemeteries, but they weren't right for Jasmine. They also didn't want to bury her in the backyard, as they did with another family cat.

"It was very unnatural not to have her around," Ms. Allen says. So, they gave Jasmine to Miller Taxidermy in northern Baltimore County. Please position her like a sphinx, they said. The couple hasn't thought of where Jasmine's resting place will be once she comes home.

"Maybe put her in the guest room," Ms. Allen says, "except we'll move her if we have guests."

People who have their pets stuffed or freeze-dried all wrestle with the same question: to bury or not. Arbutus taxidermist John Godfrey recommends burying pets. It's for the best, psychologically. A stuffed cat perpetually snuggled up by your fireplace can haunt you, he says. "As long as you keep walking by this thing, you're going to bust down and cry."

Mr. Godfrey used to work on domestic pets, but ducked out of the business. He felt more like a funeral director than a taxidermist; it got too emotional -- and strange. Several years ago, a woman came to him with a dead pygmy goat; her pet German shepherd had killed it. Mr. Godfrey worked on the goat for months, meticulously sculpting its form.

The customer thanked him very much and proceeded to attach three wheels to the stuffed goat's underside. A wooden handlebar was inserted into the goat's head.

"All the work I did on that, and she made it into a scooter for her daughter!" Mr. Godfrey says.

Ida Ehrlich never planned to make Calvin mobile. He was no toy; he was her companion. Her children were grown and out of the house. Her husband had died years ago. But her dog was there for her, and she simply could not let go.

In the beginning, she kept Calvin in her bedroom, against the wall. Calvin, in his "lying-on-the-porch" pose, is now kept in a guest room, but Mrs. Ehrlich still talks to him and pets him every day. They were together 16 years, after all.

"I have his earthly body," Mrs. Ehrlich says, "and I hope his

spiritual body has gone to heaven."

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