Originally created 12/21/05

Exhibit explores relationship between pets and owners

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The gravestone was carved granite, the small plastic casket lined with nylon and lace.

Big Bird.

Jan. 11 1966-Dec. 19 1981.

Sweet Pea.

July 4, 1972-August 22, 1991.

The dog casket and sample gravestone, designed for dogs or birds, are just two of more than 200 objects and photographs included in a new exhibit chronicling the long-term relationship Americans have with their animal companions.

"Pets in America: The Story of Our Lives With Animals at Home" is on display at the University of South Carolina's McKissick Museum through April 22 before traveling to several other cities nationwide.

The exhibit is unlike anything the museum has done, said Walda Wildman, a former chair of the museum's board of directors. So, she expected to see some very unusual artifacts. Yet she was still taken aback by the dog casket.

"That's just a little over the top," she said. "Personally, I wouldn't do that."

The exhibit was created to illustrate people's changing attitudes toward pets, said Katherine Grier, a guest curator who teaches at the University of Delaware's Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. She said more than 60 percent of American households keep pets.

"I would argue that that fact alone makes it worth studying from a historical perspective," Grier said. "I've discovered that these ordinary items that have survived really do tell the story of the daily routines that don't show up in the historical records in other ways."

But there's nothing ordinary about some of the items on display.

A wood, iron and brass dog treadmill from the 1890s attracts many who visit the exhibit. Though it resembles a modern day treadmill, dogs powered treadmills, which were used in homes and stores to produce energy. The devices were attached to washing machines, butter churns and grinders. The "First Prize Dog Power" American dog treadmill, patented in 1884, comes from a private collection, as do most artifacts in the exhibit.

Grier noted that Americans spent an estimated $34 billion on pets and related goods and services in 2004 - a sterling silver dog collar, made by Tiffany and Co. in 1900., is featured in the show.

But not all the items are as pricey or novel. In fact, some are quite practical.

The first bag of commercial kitty litter gets a lot of attention because it is commonly used today, Grier said. The invention of cat litter in the 1940s allowed people to keep cats indoors, according to information provided in the exhibit. By 1970, Americans owned more cats than dogs.

Bob and Pat Wislinski, who visited the show, are self-proclaimed "cat people." At home, their three cats rule the house, said Bob Wislinski who can easily understand people's devotion to their pets throughout history.

"The reason the exhibit is good is because it rings true," he said. "You go through and can relate to it. You know that what it's saying about our pets and ourselves is true."

The exhibit also illustrates the strides that have been made in addressing the treatment of animals, said Wislinski, who also serves on the board of Animal Mission, a local animal humane group. "We're constantly having to relearn how smart animals are, how much they can do for us and how much we can share together," he said.

The exhibit brought fond memories to Kay Edwards of her dog Dandy, who died in September.

"She was a great dog," Edwards said of the golden retriever who was a licensed therapy dog. "I would take her to an Alzheimer's facility every week and it was amazing to see her connection with the patients."

The role of pets is expected to take on more significance as households get smaller and more people live alone, said Lynn Robertson, director of the McKissick Museum.

The exhibit is the first of its kind, she said, and it's important because pets are important to people.

"I tell people about this exhibit and they say, 'Let me tell you about this pet I had.... Let me tell you about the best cat I had when I was 16,'" Robertson said. "Everyone has a pet story.

"It's not the 'Mona Lisa,' but there are incredibly moving things that are featured in this exhibit."

After the show closes in April, it will travel to Indiana State Museum and Historic Site, Indianapolis, June 4-Aug. 6; The Public Museum of Grand Rapids, Mich., Aug. 13-Feb. 25, 2007; The National Heritage Museum, Lexington, Mass., Apri1 1 2007-Oct. 14, 2007; Winterthur Museum and Gardens, Winterthur, Del., Nov. 19, 2007-Jan. 28, 2008; Chicago Historical Society, Chicago, June 9, 2008-Sept. 8, 2008.

On the Net:

Virtual tour of exhibit: www.PetsinAmerica.org.


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