I'm 40 years old and I have a collection of stuffed animals.
Among furries this is pretty much par for the course. If you visit my flat I'll probably invite you to browse my collection; if you stay overnight on my couch I'll probably offer up one or two as sleeping companions.
I usually hide them when non-furries are visiting. Not so long ago a non-furry type visited, in an otherwise furry group. He's furry-aware and furry friendly, but reacted with no small amount of shock and bemusement when I emerged from the bedroom with a handful of zebras to share around. Photos were taken for the amusement of others: look at this weird thing these adults are doing.
Stuffed animals, by arbitrary societal norms, are both childish and feminine.
My friend's reaction was okay, partly because it was knee-jerk and partly because I wasn't risking my adult/male status in his mental social hierarchy. I'm safe in the adult/male mainstream, and so my failure to meet some social expectations—being gay or having stuffed animals for example—are seen as eccentricities rather than unacceptably childish or effete.
I keep stuffed animals, despite the small risk to my social standing, because they're important to me. This editorial is my attempt to explain exactly how and why. (And I promise to talk more about the zebras shortly.)
My life had an upheaval in the 2005. We all know the story: supposedly straight male furry falls for another male fur, everything goes wrong.
In my case I broke up with my girlfriend of four years and the furry gent in question turned out to be straight. All this happened away from all my support structures in Australia, as I'd accepted a cricket-playing gig in the UK for the northern summer. And I quietly took an office job on top of the sport responsibilities. And what else... I spent my weekend nights at gay bars & clubs in Soho; injury meant I needed an ankle reconstruction; I was dating three guys simultaneously at one point; and many many other things that are making me laugh/cringe as I write but aren't worth getting into right now.
My luggage for the five months in London was basically my cricket gear plus a few changes of clothes. Due to a difference of opinion with my rental agency, I ended up living in a completely unfurnished flat: no internet or TV, just a bed and a chair (no table). It would be fair to call it spartan living.
Early on, I went to see an exhibition at the National Gallery, who were running a collection of George Stubbs's horse paintings. (His masterwork, Whistlejacket, is on permanent display in the free part of the gallery: go see it if you can, it's amazing.) On the way out, I picked up a small stuffed tiger from the gift store, supposedly based on Rousseau's Tiger In A Tropical Storm (also on permanent/free display) but actually just a small, well-made tiger with satisfying heft and cute fangs.
Travelling Tiger became the first stuffed animal I made a personal connection with. He quickly became a friendly presence in my busy, and perhaps slightly out-of-control life. He was never a replacement for social contact—goodness knows I had enough of that already—more an introspective reassurance that I was still myself. His presence was enough to help me escape the spiral of my own thoughts: I could talk to him, but more usefully he was there to cheer me on when I needed to look after myself, maybe eating some food or getting some sleep.
There is a delightful short piece recently published in Cosmopolitan, about a couple who suffered a miscarriage and found themselves coping with the help of a stuffed sea otter. Their otter friend helped them grieve for what they'd lost, by acting as a focus for their hopes for their lost child. A bit like Travelling Tiger, their otter—Sally—helped them cope by allowing them to acknowledge the challenges of their situation.
I returned from my trip to the UK in good mental shape and with a tiger-shaped seed for a stuffed animal collection. By the time I moved back to the UK—permanently this time, with a functional relationship and good prospects—I had amassed a few stuffed friends.
Moving country is difficult, but there was no question whether my stuffed animals would be coming with me. They got packed into boxes along with my books and other possessions—in hindsight we should have packed the books and animals together rather than separately (some boxes were very light, others too heavy to lift)—and put into a sea container to arrive a few months later. In the meantime I went shopping in London for some new friends, and soon enough the two collections were joined.
A friend of mine tells a story about moving a large stuffed animal collection. Lacking space, the animals were gutted, unstuffed, and packed into a large vacuum-sealed plastic bag. I've heard the story several times over the last ten years or so, but I always pretend that it's new to me, because I want to reimagine all those empty stuffed animal heads pressed up horrifically against the plastic.
I love the story, but I could never do such a thing to my stuffed animals. I could never put them back together quite right. What if I overstuffed a head, or used the wrong stuffing altogether, or forgot who's crucial bean-bag-hoof belongs to whom?
Old Man Lion has a greying mane and distinguished face, and also a weighty beanbag that's supposed to rest in his belly but has partly slipped down one of his legs. It's okay, because he's old, and even old lions have dodgy hips sometimes. I could never put him back together just so.
Stuffed animals should have some weight to them, and like Travelling Tiger and Old Man Lion that normally means internal beanbags, usually keeping the centre of gravity towards to back end: the legs, the crotch, the belly. They should be understuffed. The right size is maybe 24" to 36", weildy but big enough to hug and sleep alongside. The design of the face is most important.
They should be animal-shaped, anthropomorphic only in the human names and qualities one might give them. Absolutely no big eyes, non-natural colours, or embiggened 'cute' features. They should not be posed or posable. No internal wires or support. They should be floppy, ideally looking a bit like a smaller, deflated version of the real thing.
Your best options for stuffed animals in the UK are in London: Hamleys usually has a few among a lot of dross, and the Rainforest Cafe just down the road is great. Old Man Lion came from Hamleys. I've bought several big cats from the Rainforest Cafe—it seems to be their speciality—including a pair of cheetahs named Goldust and Stardust. Goldust was my first purchase when I moved from Australia and, naturally, is both several years older then Stardust as well as being everyone's favourite of the two.
I have found some delightful stuffed animals in France, in person and online at Mes Peluches. Note: email updates from French stuffed animal stores is the best spam imaginable.
In Germany, there is a great store near the railway station in Munich. I don't know the name but I'm sure I could find it in minutes if required. And the former East German state stuffed animal company, Plüti, has somehow survived and today make the best big stuffed animals I've seen (if a bit overstuffed). You can't buy their products online but you can download the catalogue, order via email, and send money direct to their bank account. If that sounds like an unreasonable risk, well, you haven't seen Giant Mister Donkey.
In Australia, the only good place to buy stuffed animals I've ever seen is The Teddy Bear Shop in the Melbourne CBD. Although I once did buy a puma in David Jones, but it didn't have a pricetag or any sort of label. The cashier and I negotiated a bargain. (In hindsight I guess it's possible I bought some child's treasured, misplaced toy.)
Your best stuffed animal buying, however, is via US-based specialist websites. You can't buy from large retailers like Amazon because quality is important, and their algorithms favour products that compare well on price. Instead you'll want to visit the treasure troves at stores like Stuffed Ark, All Plush, This Place Is A Zoo, and The Jungle Store.
Be aware that shipping costs are astronomical. Many US-based stores don't ship overseas, which means you'll need to use (and pay for) an international mailbox company like Bongo (www.bongous.com). This, plus the fact you can't try-before-you buy, makes international stuffed animals a bit of a crapshoot. It makes sense—from a fiscal and risk-of-total-disappointment perspective—if you save up and buy a lot at once. I once bought a few stuffed animals from a store/maker that I trusted, but failed to consider the size. They were all too small, so I gave them away to random furs at the following Londonfurs meet.
My first zebra, Zzzzzz (pronounced as a one-syllable word), was one of my first international stuffed animal purchases. Several years later I noticed that my zebra supplier was out of stock, and I had a minor crisis as I imagined Zzzzzz disintegrating with age, or being left behind at a convention. Some months later, I noticed that zebras were back in stock. I was drunk at the time, which I took as a sign, so I ordered four more. I regret nothing.
My stuffed animals are something that makes our flat a furry space, a safe counterpoint to the non-furry world. I keep them corralled in a pen designed to keep toddlers or small dogs safe while camping, with a handful at large: on the bed or scattered around our living area. As time goes on I will buy more, and I'll get rid of some too, either because of age, quality concerns, or the fact I never really bonded with them.
I suffer, sometimes, from friends who see my collection and take it upon themselves to buy one as a present. Please do not do this. I appreciate the thought but it's a dangerous game. I don't want to be in a position where I'm disposing of a gift. Happily I have found uses for those given to me —I have a couple of small horses I use as bookends—but that's luck rather than design.
Since 2005, I have never once managed to find a good stuffed horse. I have several that are mediocre, but none that compare in quality to my bushel of zebras. I've been burned too many times to buy another online. Does anyone know of stores I should visit?