Editorial: On Stuffed Animals

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?

About JM

JM is a horse-of-all-trades who was introduced to furry in his native Australia by the excellent group known collectively as the Perthfurs. JM now helps run [adjective][species] from London, where he is most commonly spotted holding a pint and talking nonsense.

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24 thoughts on “Editorial: On Stuffed Animals

  1. I’ve been wondering when we’d get something like JM’s Kaddish :)

    For the USians out there, you might try Grand Rabbits (http://www.grtoys.com/) They have some brick-and-mortar shops around town, which helped to expand my collection of foxes. In Seattle, there is a stuffed toy shop which was the only place I’ve found arctic foxes outside of Amazon. I giddily bought several, then had to figure out how to get them all home.

    1. I don’t think my prose can live up to the standards of Makyo’s Kaddish, but I got to write about Zzzzzz, so that’s 1-1 as far as I’m concerned.

      Thanks for the tip on Grand Rabbits. I’ll add them to my list of personal vendors.

    2. Is the Seattle store Magic Mouse Toys? I’ve been there, but have not bought anything yet because I can’t make up my mind.

      The thought of owning stuffed animals as an adult crossed my mind years ago when my sister and I were watching the Arsenio Hall Show, and he mentioned that he has a stuffed animal collection. I mentioned to my sister, “Hey, maybe I could–”

      “NO!” she cut me off. Years later she treated me to my first trip to Walt Disney World, and with all their varied ways they have of separating their guests from their money, I finally succumbed and bought a Thumper. The collection grew from there, mostly continuing with Disney. I can see the merits of small eyes, less cute; but I’m already down the road I’m going. I had heard about furry a few years before this, but owning and cuddling with Thumper is what finally got me to join the group.

      There seems to be a shortage of information about how to care for stuffed animals. I notice that especially in the summer when I need to pump supposedly fresh air into the apartment to keep cool, the animals collect an uncomfortable amount of dust. I mentioned this to an LGBT support group, and they mentioned putting them in the dryer for a few minutes with wet towels. That did the trick, but I have not found this hint repeated anywhere else, and I wonder what else I’m missing.

      1. I’ve picked up a few tricks over the years, to deal with everything from normal ageing through to spills – memorably, a glass of red wine over my white sheep. I’ve found stuffed animals to be sturdy and washable, if you treat them with care. Here’s my all-purpose method:

        – Soak in colourfast bleach and cold water for a day or so. If you have a nasty stain, you can repeat this step two or three times.
        – Place the stuffed animal inside a (tied closed) pillow slip, and wash on a gentle cycle with your normal detergent, again in cold water. Spin but don’t dry. If your stuffed animal is too large for the machine, handwash in a bath.
        – Brush the fur thoroughly to being back the original grain and to remove any clumping. Fursuiters do the same thing to preserve their fur.
        – Dry in a low humidity environment, ideally hanging in a sunny part of your house, or in a covered/shaded area outside. Make sure it dries throughly – it may take a few days – otherwise mould is a risk. Change the position of the animal regularly to prevent dents from whatever it’s sitting/hanging on.

        Anyway, I hope that is helpful for you. I’ve used this method many times and it’s always worked well. And thanks for your story about Thumper, he sounds delightful.

  2. I’ve got my old plushies from when I was a kid back in South Africa in a cupboard. You probably don’t want to hear that. But I spent my first Christmas completely alone last year so I bought myself a fox plushie in Munich. Now he’s accompanied me to three different countries and sits next to my PC. Really cute, even if he does seem to glare at me a bit…

    Gratuitous fox pics follow:

    1. In general I think the message is that there’s no right or wrong way to go about things. I anthropomorphise my stuffed animals but that doesn’t mean that I think they all should be, or indeed that they are anything other than inanimate objects. Cute, huggable inanimate objects. So you’re forgiven for leaving your old animals in a cupboard somewhere.

      Nice work by the way, dropping the fursuit pic in with the others.

  3. I have a few MLP pushes myself: one custom made off eBay, one from Build-a-Bear, and one I got at a furry convention. When I was younger, I ended up getting mostly dogs as gifts: a Golden, a Rottie, and a Chocolate Lab. I’m probably forgetting one or two, but they’re all packed up right now since I’m moving soon. I would live to get a tiger, at least, among a menagerie of others; but, alas, I am a poor college kid. I’ll have to check out those sites you mentioned sometime.

    Honestly, no one would be surprised if I have a bunch of stuffed animals around. I’ve always liked animals, and I’m going into Biology and hope to have a career in take care of or studying animals.

  4. Have you ever shopped thrift stores for plushes? I’m lucky to have two good stores near me. They clean and disinfect them before putting them on the shelves. My two little traveling companions, DJ CarSquirrel and Carmadillo both came from thrift stores.

    1. I do stick my head into thrift stores from time to time, but I’ve never found a good stuffed animal in one. I’ll keep looking though.

  5. Thanks for the warning about presents! This was a lovely post.

    I have a habit of buying animals as travelling companions, then retiring them when I get so attached that the thought of losing them en route becomes too horrific. Currently it’s a small husky called Bootsy, who cost £1.50 in Boots, but I am coming to realise that price and affection do not correlate, so the time may be coming when he is left at home.

    IKEA have a horse at the moment, but their creatures have a distinctive style which you either like or don’t.

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for the tip about Ikea. I’m not sure I have the mental constitution to brave a lap around an Ikea on the off chance they have a nice horse though… I’ve been to Ikea once, and that was plenty.

  6. I often joke around that I blame the furry fandom for my plushie interest, I mainly collect Sanrio /Hello Kitty plushies. http://www.kittyblog.asinglelion.com/?p=637

    I am more open to others except for the pile of plushies I sleep with. I even have a con rep, as the guy who take a 3ft Hello Kitty to fan conventions. if i did not bring one people would think something is wrong

    1. Thanks for the kind words. It’s something a bit different from my usual articles here, but I’m proud of the way it’s turned out and I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  7. In my comment to the previous story here on AS, “Furry Site Content Statistics” I noted the lack of bears appearing in the top ten. So I looked at JM’s “Species Popularity by Sex, Gender & Sexual Orientation” August 11, 2014 and saw bears appeared way down the list, so maybe they aren’t as popular as I assumed. With this in mind I’m wondering if, with all the high tech toys and entertainments that are available to young children today, we may in the near future actually see a decline in the number of people who _ever_ develop a fondness for simple toy animals. Could we soon be seeing a furry community where possession of stuffed animals will be only by a small, small minority?

    1. Hi SR. Like you, I expected bears to be more popular. (Not just because of the preponderance of stuffed bears, but also because of the male body stereotype – yet none of the handful of self-identified “gay bears” I’ve known have a bear as their furry character. I’ve always found that interesting.)

      In some ways I think it’d be a pity if stuffed animals become a less common possession of furries, but I guess that’s because I’m thinking of what makes them special to me. In the end, of course, people will – and should – do whatever works for them.

      More generally, we’ve been recently looking around for signs that the furry community is changing. Perhaps this is one of those things that will ultimately be a marker for furries from different generations.

  8. I think I made a mistake when I wrote,

    “with all the high tech toys and entertainments that are available to young children today, we may in the near future actually see a decline in the number of people who _ever_ develop a fondness for simple toy animals.”

    Thinking it over some more, I now believe that for most furries, owning stuffed animals is not founded in our childhood attachments to them. I don’t think we are actually reaching back to our childhood when we own and collect them. Looking back at some previous AS essays I found this quote from Makyo and I believe it expresses what we are really doing with stuffed animals:

    “. . . I think that playfulness and childishness inform furry on a more fundamental level than we honestly give them credit for. I know the common refrain that furry is about hearkening back to our Saturday-morning-cartoon childhoods, that fursuiting is something we do for the enjoyment of children, and I believe that truly is the case for some, but I think that frames the whole situation in a much less personal, much more selfless way. At heart, I think the truth is that a good many of us truly are playful. Our childishness isn’t something that’s immature, as this playfulness even shows up in our more adult creations, but it’s something that shows our strength of character. . .”

    Posted on September 10, 2014 by Makyo

  9. I started out with a Tanooki suited Mario which I got at Anime Midwest in 2014. Now I have 17, if someone asked me why I started to collect them with me being in my 50s. Because they makes me smile, and remember when times were less complicated in my life

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