ROMANCE, Ark. — It all started with an email that appeared to be a hoax.
"We received an email from someone who wanted to create a TV show about a small, family-owned, taxidermy business and would we be interested," said Daniel Ross, the owner of Xtreme Taxidermy. "My wife told me about it and we thought it was a joke. We didn't take it seriously at all. But I told her to reply, 'Sure, why not?'"
Three years later, the Ross family is going on TV.
Daniel Ross, his wife, LaDawn, and three young sons, along with three employees, make up the cast of Animal Planet's new series, "American Stuffers," which chronicles the ups and downs of a rural, backyard taxidermy business that specializes in pet preservation. The series premieres Thursday, Jan. 5, at 8 p.m. MST.
At least two things set the Ross family business apart. First, the pet preservation aspect of Daniel's business is unique and clients come from far and wide with their beloved, dead pets, including raccoons, snakes, iguanas, dogs, tarantulas, scorpions, even a screech owl owned by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Second, the Rosses are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Daniel was raised in an LDS family, and his brothers served missions. As high school sweethearts, Daniel introduced LaDawn to Mormon missionaries who taught and baptized her. Daniel and LaDawn have been married for 16 years and have created a loving, supportive home environment for their three sons. There is a part in the second episode when the family reads the Book of Mormon together, followed by a game at the kitchen table.
Both elements appealed to show executives.
"It was something new to us," said Mick Kaczorowski, Animal Planet executive producer. "The whole series is about love. Daniel transforms these pets for people who don't want to depart with them and they shed tears of joy … And the whole family is involved. There is something unique and loving in everything they do. It's sort of 'I Love Lucy' meets 'Extreme Home Makeover.'"
Daniel Ross, an outdoor enthusiast, started in taxidermy about nine years ago when he decided he could save money by doing his own mounts. Business began to boom about five years ago when he started doing pet preservation.
"I wanted to learn how to do it myself to make a little money and maybe do some for my friends," he said. "But once we opened the shop, me and a buddy of mine, it was just crazy how many people brought deer in that first year. It became a flood of work. Now with the pet preservation, it's added a whole new growth to the business. This pet preservation is going to be huge."
In addition to innovation and family values, the show is funny and entertaining. In the first episode, "Keep Your Dead Animals Out of My Kitchen," Daniel uses his family's kitchen oven to dry a few animal parts. When LaDawn smells something foul as she prepares the family meal, she gets in her husband's face about it. "I thought I would kill him," she said.
In the second episode, "The Woman with a Pet Raccoon," an emotional woman comes into the shop carrying her dead raccoon, Chatters. Daniel is worried, as he is with every client, that if he doesn't arrange things just right, the client will be upset and his business will suffer. But he always finds a way.
"Many people don't have a clue that pet preservation exists. They may think it's weird and say, 'Gee whiz, something like this really goes on?'" Kaczorowski said. "But this series really has it all. It's a feel-good series. There is no screaming, yelling or fighting, but it's very entertaining."
The Ross family will spend Thursday evening at a party with media and about 200 of their closest friends and family. Daniel admits he never thought he would be on TV, but he and LaDawn are excited to see where the show takes their business and lives. The biggest challenge has been maintaining balance and a sense of normalcy in the home.
"It's crazy our lives have played out like this. I never thought I would be a taxidermist or on TV," Daniel said. "The Lord is blessing us for trying to live right and do our best."
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