- Walter Novak
- Rip van Poochie: Susie the pit bull has been "sleeping" for 27 years.
Gizmo was a dream on four legs, with strawberry-colored fur and a bark that sounded like the far-off tinkling of golden handbells. But Kipper, Dorothy Hall's new mutt, is 10 panting pounds of terror, howling at the wrong time and mauling innocent shoes.
What Kipper would like to get his fangs on most, though, is Dead Gizmo: the embodiment of all that is pure and good about dogs, and the constant reminder of his own uncouthness. Freeze-dried in death, Gizmo is enjoying his eternal snooze not by rotting in the backyard under the petunias, but by resting peacefully intact and above ground, on the mantel over Dorothy's fireplace.
Did it ever occur to Dorothy that maybe the proximity of the rock-hard trophy that was once Mr. Perfect is at the root of Kipper's maladjustment? Uh, no. She thinks only happy thoughts of Gizmo. After all, he's the only pal that, physically anyway, will never leave her. His spirit might be romping in an Elysian field of tennis balls, but she can still brush his coat as he curls in her lap.
"When you go through so many funerals, put away so many loved ones, see your aunts and uncles and parents go, it's too much," says Hall. "When Gizmo died, I couldn't deal with it, after putting all them in the ground. So I said, 'To each his own.'"
She tucked Gizmo's small-boned vessel in a trash bag, then lovingly stashed it in the freezer. "Of course, I had to clear out my freezer so I could fit him in there. Everyone flipped out over that. I took the food over to my neighbor's, and her husband said, 'You can't put a dead dog in the freezer.' Well, I certainly can."
The next morning, she wrapped the frozen-doggie bag in a baby blanket and drove to Kastaway Kulis's in Bedford, the only place around that freeze-dries dead pets. People from all over the region UPS their dearly departed Fluffies, Fidos, and Chirpies there. Joe Kulis makes 'em look like they're just sleeping, for about $150 for Grandpa's canary that drowned in the toilet to $2,000 for a 200-pound Rottweiler named Lamby-Pie.
Accented with a rustic gangplank and safari-hut decor, the shop is the only establishment in downtown Bedford that belongs in a Florida tourist trap along with trained alligators and tiki birds.
Inside, visitors are greeted by a stuffed promenade of teeth-baring bears, tongue-furling tigers, and startled mountain goats arranged around a trickling waterfall. A black rhino Kulis once brought back from a hunt was too huge for the display, so he used a forklift to hoist it up on a platform in the back.
But the storefront diorama is just a tease. A big-gamesman who taught himself taxidermy as a teen, Joe bought land by Sea World for a museum, but never built it. So he concentrates on curing dead things, with a little fish bait sold on the side.
Rugged and silver-haired, Joe would rather be fishing than minding the store. So the one constant in the business is Pauline Kulis, his 86-year-old mom. Peeking out from under her auburn wig, the tiny, crinkled woman runs the show with the clipped voice of a drill sergeant.
The Kulises specialize in taxidermy, but the carcasses are discreetly kept in the back, because about a fifth of their clientele are in the "Don't kill Bambi" camp. They only want to bring back the precious darling furball that fetched their slippers or ate the tinsel off the Christmas tree.
Taxidermy requires skinning, trimming, and pinning the hide to fit the appropriate pre-made Styrofoam form. That might be OK for a deer, but Dorothy Hall wants Gizmo to look like Gizmo, not generic Pomeranian #3. So rather than slice him up, they stick him in the freeze-dryer -- a vacuum-packed glacial chamber where moisture is slowly drained from tissue.
Some months later, when it's done, the animal has the density of a concrete lawn ornament, but with still-lustrous fur. Or in some cases, feathers. On a special shelf above the cash register, a menagerie of freshly freeze-dried pets awaits their owners. "Don't rush -- I'll still be around tomorrow," a blissful blue-and-white parakeet seems to say. Joe doesn't have much to add. "It died, I guess, and they had it awhile."
When you have to live in a tree for a week to snare the elusive bongo, it pays to be the quiet type. Joe lets his mom soothe teary pet mourners and ask for the money up front, please. (Don't wanna be stuck with a bunch of furry doorstops. Nine months in the cooler is a long time, and if they don't pre-pay, even devastated pet owners can conveniently forget li'l Licky.)
Pauline Kulis was "very empathetic" when Dorothy Hall and her grief-stricken daughter Kathy brought in Kathy's euthanized cat, Bonehead. "It was cute," says Dorothy. "'Don't you worry about nothing, we'll make him look good.'" Then she asked them to pony up the cash. "She's very spunky."
A widow for 51 years, "I know how hard it is," says Pauline Kulis. "You just take the pet in, and you can see the hurt. You have to take that hurt away before they leave, so they have a nice memory."
Freeze-drying Gizmo would take eight months, Dorothy was told. "But it took 10. I thought, 'Gee, what are they doing?' I'd call, and Mrs. Kulis would just go, 'Have patience, honey, she's still in the tank.'" It might be dark in there, but it's not lonely, with other "sleeping" dogs and cats for company.
Kulis built his first subzero suite in 1967, after reading a Smithsonian magazine article on freeze-drying. Since then, he's built four more to keep up with the growing demand for mantelpieces. He also keeps the machines humming by taking in water-damaged documents for Case Western Reserve University, reptiles for Metroparks displays, and the harvest of a cricket farm in Louisiana, sold as pet food.
He'd hoped to add human corpses to his oeuvre, but the state legislature "had a problem with what would happen to that body a hundred years from now." Fancy that. Perhaps the best companion for a dead body would be a dead body's best friend.