SLATER, Mo. -- Growing up on the family farm, Anthony Eddy learned early on not to get too attached to animals, including household pets.
His devoted customers are a different story. Pet lovers across the country count on the Saline County taxidermist to faithfully preserve Brutus, Fluffy and other beloved companions for posterity. Even if it means shelling out thousands of dollars and waiting more than a year for the pets' return.
"They're very distraught, because their child has died. For most people, this animal is their life," said Lessie "Les" Thurman Calvert, Eddy's office manager. "Some are kind of eccentric. But most of them are just like you and me. They don't want to bury or create them. They can't stand the thought ... It helps them feel better about the loss."
The front showroom of Eddy's Wildlife Studio in downtown Slater is a testament to pet owners' perseverance. Lifelike dogs and cats of all sizes are scattered along the floor, from a perky-looking Brittany spaniel to a regal Persian cat, a lone iguana and the stray cockatiel or two. Departed pets of all persuasions spend up to one year in hulking, freeze-dry metal drums before they are painstakingly preserved and returned to their owners.
Eddy said his business is one of the few in the country to specialize in pet taxidermy and has a two-month waiting list.
A former high school chemistry and biology teacher, hog farmer and Air Force veteran, Eddy started out in traditional taxidermy, stuffing great horned owls and pheasants with the help of a local veterinarian. He originally used the freeze-dry technique to preserve mounted turkey heads for hunters before realizing in the mid-1990s it could also work with pets.
Eddy, 64, compares his line of work to the mortician's trade -- he'll share broad details about the process with customers, but likes to keep some mystery to the process and steer clear of the gross-out factor. He's quick to embrace the artistry of his craft, especially when it comes to the primping and prepping required once the internal organs and body fat are removed and the carcass is fully dry. Depending on the customer's preference, pets can be posed with a skyward gaze, an extended paw or with eyes closed, seemingly asleep.
"You just have a knack for it," he said. "It's like an artist painting a picture."
The degree of difficulty -- and the scrutiny of demanding pet owners who can immediately detect flaws or imperfections in their loved ones -- keep many traditional taxidermists from the domestic animal sector, said Steve Wolk, president of the National Taxidermists Association.
"No matter how perfect your pet comes out, there can still be something wrong," said Wolk, who owns Little Creek Taxidermy in Festus, Mo. "When you go deer hunting, you don't know what that deer looks like. Everybody knows exactly what their pets look like."
Debbie Rosa, a 59-year-old teacher who splits her time between southern Maine and Port Charlotte, Fla., had her 17-year-old fox terrier Lexi preserved by Eddy when the dog died just before Christmas 2005. She said the choice was an easy one.
"I could stare at an urn, or I could stare at the ground in the cemetery, or I could hold and pet her," Rosa said. "Her spirit is in heaven, but her body is here on Earth."
Eddy and Calvert estimate they receive two to three pets each week, every week. The studio charges $850 for pets under 10 pounds and another $40 per additional pound.
Allen McConnell, a psychology professor at Miami University in Ohio who studies pet owners' behavior, said those who opt for animal preservation can be motivated by grief, a need for belonging and anthropomorphism -- the act of ascribing human attributes to animals or even inanimate objects.
"It's very common for people to memorialize important members of their family," he said. "We often visit relatives in family gravesites on birthdays. ... It's part of an extended connection that people have."
Eddy said he is no longer surprised by unusual requests from customers. It seems that as long as humans embrace animals as four-legged friends, those bonds will continue past the pet's expiration date.
"It runs the whole gamut," he said, mentioning turtles, guinea pigs, snakes and more. "If you've got a pet of some kind, somebody's going to want you to preserve it."