American Stuffers

American Stuffers debuts tonight on Animal Planet at 10 p.m. Eastern.

When I was a kid we owned a Shetland Sheepdog named Major, whom my mom nicknamed “the dog who walked on water.” We idolized that dog, discussing the direction in which he ran circles in the backyard (always counterclockwise) and how it wasn’t that he hated other people, it was just that he was “discriminating.” More than once, as Major approached his golden years, my dad mused about the possibility of just getting the dog stuffed when he passed, since Dad couldn’t imagine the house without him. Well, we didn’t end up doing that, but thanks to American Stuffers, I know now of a taxidermy place in Arkansas who could have done the job for us.

At first blush it seems pretty macabre that a show about stuffing dead animals would appear on Animal Planet. The series is about Daniel Ross, who runs a company called Xtreme Taxidermy. The producers of the show seem eager to have Daniel show off his backwoods sensibility, as he refers to his family as “the redneck version of the Addams Family” and the intro to the show features Daniel standing with his wife and sons as he wields an automatic rifle and they all laugh maniacally. There are dead animal parts rotting away in the front yard and Daniel employs a guy named Fred who graduated from “local redneck” to actual worker, albeit one whom Daniel needs to ask to put on a shirt.

Very little wildlife stuffing goes on in the premiere episode, which instead focuses on Ross’ work as a pet preservationist. I watched the show because I was curious to see exactly what goes on in regards to taxidermy, but it’s clear why the pet preservation takes center stage. There are three pet preservation scenarios in this episode, and each follow a pattern: an eccentric Southern type person enters the store, and just as you start mocking him (or her) for his weird name or outfit he starts crying as he talks about how much he misses his dead dog. Then you start thinking you might want to cry too (if you’re someone who has ever lost a beloved pet.) Ross begins the preservation process (organs are taken out, the body is stuffed, then freeze-dried, then touched up with airbrushing and nice new acrylic eyeballs and perhaps an artfully placed tongue or tiny tiara). The client returns, Ross asks him repeatedly, “How are you feeling? Are you ready?” Then the client cries once again at the big reveal. Only this time you don’t feel like crying yourself, because you feel creeped out and want to laugh at the same time.

It’s a mini emotional roller-coaster, because even as I identified with the sadness of missing a pet, a stuffed pet dog is just fundamentally weird. It may look somewhat lifelike but it’s comically stiff and inanimate, so while I felt for Teach, the biker who mourned his dog Turd, I had to laugh as Teach held Turd, forever stuck in a prone position, up against his chest to embrace her. Then he strapped Turd onto the back of his motorcycle and drove off. It made me realize that while I may love my greyhound’s soft head and big front feet, those are just physical representations of the dog’s personality: I don’t believe I’d want anything to do with them once he’s dead and gone. Plus, there was something simultaneously hilarious and sweetly pathetic about some otherwise tough-seeming folk becoming childlike in the face of their departed friends. A meaty tattooed customer named Hawk reminisces, at one point, about how his now-stuffed chihuahua Toot Toot used to lick his entire bald head each night before bed.

Stuffers will probably be a goldmine for The Soup when it comes to clips of bizarre happenings. In addition to the pet preserving (“In order to freeze-dry the pets, it’s important that you take the organs out.” “Go ahead and take the eyes out.), there is also another story in the episode where Daniel annoys his wife LaDawn by allowing one of his employees to dry hog skulls in her oven (helpful tip: hog skulls apparently stink when baked for too long) which yields quotes like “We had to use her oven to bake hog heads and I know that sounds crazy.” The hog skull customer just happens to be a tiny girl who shot the animal herself and who cradles the gigantic skull to her like a teddy bear. There’s also a less-interesting story about Dixie, the intern, who expresses trepidation at the thought of working with blood and guts (what did she think will happen when she signed up for the gig?) and who is hazed a bit as Daniel’s boys give her a spider in a box.

I’m not intrigued enough by Stuffers to DVR future episodes (annoyingly, it’s one of those reality TV shows that, after each commercial break, repeats the last 20 seconds you saw before the break), but I was surprised by what sensitive spots the show was able to reach. It was touching in ways I didn’t expect as well as disturbing in ways I didn’t expect:. It’s not the gore that was off-putting, it's the lady who admits to putting her now-freeze-dried Yorkshire terrier above her son--in front of her son.

--Even though I know it must be awful, I sorta want to know what burnt-up hog skull smells like.

--After Teach’s complaint that he thought Turd’s eyes would be closed, I pondered why Daniel doesn’t just write these things down to prevent situations like this from arising.

--Prior to getting freshened up, freeze-dried Toot Toot looked perturbed, like he knew that it was just wrong that he was freeze-dried.

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