When I was a kid, I stumbled upon a book called âWild Animals I Have Knownâ by Ernest Thompson Seton. I donât recall any of the bookâs contents, but its title has stuck in my brain ever since.
Itâs echoing particularly loudly these days, as Key Westâs Pet Masquerade draws near and people all over the island prepare mild-mannered domestic pets to impersonate some of the wildest animals on the planet.
In fact, Pet Masquerade draws dozens of competitors that range from dogs and cats to potbellied pigs, snakes, exotic birds and even a few strange-looking lizards. Some entries are simple pet-and-person pairings, while others are multi-member animal and human ensembles that perform offbeat skits.
The 2011 contest, for example, included a Great Dane costumed as a Florida lobster, five festive jellyfish, a complicated coral reef ensemble featuring a bowl of live goldfish, and a wildly popular Chihuahua âburroâ with tiny saddlebags holding tequila.
As a veteran Pet Masquerade spectator, and friend to many animal and human competitors, Iâve learned a few things over the years â and I offer them here for any âparty animalsâ preparing to compete.
Cats donât like dressing in drag. I once tried to costume a 20-pound male Norwegian Forest Cat named Alex, who was very conscious of his dignity, in a tasteful silk dress and a rope of pearls for Pet Masquerade. Getting him used to his finery was a lengthy process involving hisses, claws and curses (both human and feline).
Finally Alex convinced me, in his subtle catly way, that competing was not a viable option. After I promised him at least 37 times that I would never attempt to dress him in drag again, he forgave me (I think).
Certain methods of costume-training a dog work better than others. Just ask Georgia resident Jeff Hrizuk, who participated a few years back with his Australian cattle dog, K.C. Dressed as a black widow spider to complement Jeffâs gauzy spiderweb outfit, K.C. seemed completely comfortable in his costume â which included six spider legs made of felt-wrapped wire.
âIt took two weeks to train him to wear the costume,â Jeff reported. âThe first time we put it on him, he was afraid of it. Then we started giving him a steak, putting the costume on, and giving him another steak afterwards. Pretty soon he was really eager to put it on.â
Beware of body paint â for yourself and your animal friends. One year, Key West mortgage banker David Koontz was part of a Pet Masquerade ensemble starring a lovely female Borzoi. Her human companion, Madeleine, choreographed a musical number for the dog and a multi-person costumed entourage to perform. The costume she chose for David included purple body paint applied liberally to his skin and hair.
Unfortunately, after the contest it didnât wash off very well. The next day, David flew to New York for a national mortgage bankersâ conference â where his faintly purple âauraâ elicited some very strange comments.
Remember that St. Bernards are not lightweights. Skip and Carol Radin brought their five-year-old St. Bernard dog, Wilhelmina, all the way from Saco, Maine, to compete in Pet Masquerade a few years back.
Accompanied by two fellow Saco residents, they staged a âSt. Bernard rescueâ with a twist. Dressed as keg-bearing St. Bernards, the human contingent rolled a supposedly intoxicated Wilhelmina onto a large gurney and carried her away â with some difficulty, since a reclining St. Bernard is a fairly heavy burden even for a group.
A Fantasy Fest favorite for kids and grownups, Pet Masquerade benefits Lower Keys Friends of Animals. The 2012 competition begins at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 24, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean at Key Westâs beautiful Casa Marina Resort.
Donât miss it â and I guarantee youâll encounter more âwild animalsâ than Ernest Thompson Seton ever did.