It isn’t easy to transform a bulldog into a leopard, but Joy Holt was trying. She was trying in broad daylight, in the middle of the sidewalk, with a small circle of people raptly watching. “He’s not afraid. Cosmo’s not shy at all about getting dressed in public,” Holt said as she struggled to give the dog a new identity. She carefully pulled the thin, spotted costume material over the stoic dog’s back legs, then slowly around the rest of his body I until the change was complete. “Two years ago,” she said, “I dressed him as a taco.”

If Cosmo was nervous about competing in the Parkview Pet Shop’s recent annual Costume Party for Pets, he didn’t show it. Liberace, on the other hand, was being temperamental, and his owner didn’t know whether or not he would play his piano that afternoon. “He’s really a black-and-white shorthaired cat named Bogart, in case you can’t tell.” laughed Diana Tchakirides, his owner. “Three years ago he won a prize in a devil costume. He loves changing characters.”

But there were a few animals that just wanted to be seen as themselves. Sheila Fasang held up an albino rabbit in a yellow dress with white lace at the collar and cuffs. “She’s a bunny, a Beatrix Potter bunny. Rabbits are great pets to have, especially with other pets–like my two cats, who love to lick her clean. I bought her out of sympathy. I kept coming back to the pet store again and again, and she wasn’t being sold. So finally I bought her. Her name is Matthew, even though she’s female. You see, vets don’t know much about the sex of rabbits, and I took her to be neutered in case she was a male–otherwise they urinate all over the place–and she was put to sleep and cut open and then they found out she wasn’t male. So they just stitched her back up again. But I decided to let her keep her name as Matthew, since I’d been calling her that all along.”

At least 100 people had turned out to watch this year’s contest. There was a small stage set up along the outside of the store. Master of ceremonies Ron Dean read the names and a brief description of the contestants as they promenaded across the stage. The majority of the crowd applauded appreciatively, although one woman blurted out to a friend, “These people don’t need pets, they need kids.”

Awards were given in a variety of categories, all of them completely improvised by the judges, who included Jane Sahlins, of the International Theater Festival. “We have as many awards,” she confessed, “as there are witty categories we can come up with. It’s all meant to be just good fun, although–believe it or not–some people get very upset when they lose.” The street was filled with friends and onlookers, many of them with pets of their own. One man told me he thought this year’s turnout was small compared to other years: “It must be the marathon and the cold temperature.” I asked him why he hadn’t entered his dog, a beautiful Alaskan malamute. “I did a few years ago,” he answered grumpily. “As a polar bear. But when he didn’t win, I just decided it wasn’t worth the effort anymore.”

Some people think it’s more than worth the effort. Gail Swanson of Thorton, Illinois, brings her 26-year-old mare, Lady Guinevere, every year in a horse van. “She’s a buckskin quarter horse. People would be disappointed if she didn’t come. This year she’s dressed as a ballerina with pink satin slippers and a tutu, but she’s also been a fire truck, a taxi cab, a clown, a Chicago spare Bear, Al Capone, Joan Collins, and Michael Jackson–and won every time. She’s in a category of her own. I also bring my box turtle, Sherman–so called because one year she came as a tank. This year she’s a car carrier, with colored toy cars attached to her shell. I have no idea how old she is, though. She’s been entered for five years so she’s probably about seven. You can’t look at her teeth like you can with a horse. Lady Guinevere has been entered for eight years; when she’s been in it for twelve, she can be a calendar.”

Donna Dunlap, owner of the pet store, told me that the whole thing started as an event for kids, but pretty soon more and more adults were showing up. One of the few children I saw was Florence Miller, age ten, with her hermit crab named Spaz. “I got Spaz when they gave out crabs at Christmas at school last year. I keep him in a fish tank–with no water, of course. And crabs need to be exercised, so every week I take him out and let him walk around all over. But not outside, because it’s too cold in Chicago and crabs are supposed to live on beaches, where it’s hot. For his costume I took one of his old shells and painted it to look like a pumpkin, because I didn’t want to paint him, which could kill him.”

Most of the pets were of a hardier nature. Many were dogs. There was a bichon frise who was one woman’s personal guardian angel in a halo and white-and-silver net; a Welsh corgi dressed as a homecoming float with a purple-clad Barbie doll atop a garment of tissue paper; a satellite, marathon runners, a Hershey’s kiss in a tinfoil hat, Rocky the Road Warrior, Robin Hood, Santa Claus, a chihuahua in a sleigh, a Lhasa apso as an O’Cedar mop, and 11 dogs as the Indiana National Guard. Two Maltese named Johnny and Edgar Winter came as Superman and Spiderman this year; they wanted to be good guys because they’d been terrorists last year, complete with grenades and gun belts. Other entries included two black cats in hats, dark sunglasses, and ties that came as the Blues Brothers, a cat dressed as a human baby, a goldfish in a pitcher that was supposed to be Kool-Aid, and a girl with her cat Sammy, which came just as a pretty cat.

Despite all the variety, one of the judges, Lily Monkus, was amazed at the absence of one character. “There’s no Freddy Krueger! I can’t believe it! That’s the best-selling costume this year–for humans, anyway. But this is Lincoln Park. They probably don’t let their kids watch that stuff.”

Fortunately anthropomorphism didn’t run completely wild. Diana Bush, in a brown leather jacket and painter’s cap, went in a more conceptual direction, hanging a sign that said “Wet Paint” on her dalmatian. “I entertained the idea of bringing her as Dali–as in Salvador Dali–with a little mustache, and I would have come in a blue body suit painted with clouds. But it seemed like too much work.”

There was also a tip of the hat to environmental issues. Tony Fabianich, obviously a man with ideas, brought his two box turtles as Crossbeak and Bonnett, the stranded whales, in a boxed ocean of blue towels. “Other years they’ve come and won as Hawaii and a Big Mac. I once brought a goldfish as sushi, in a dish with parsley, rice, soy sauce, and chopsticks. This year I would have brought my hedgehog as a cheeseball, but it was too cold out to bring him.”

When award time came, Fabianich’s whale-turtles won an award–the No Jails for Whales Award. The Blues Brothers cats won the Foster Grant Award, a dog disguised as Lon Chaney won the Dog of a Thousand Faces Award, and Santa Claus in a sleigh won the What Holiday Is This Anyway? Award. Each award was a ten-dollar gift certificate redeemable at the pet shop.

The Robin Givens Award went to Brutus, a boxer masquerading as Mike Tyson. “I couldn’t resist the hook,” said his owner, Larissa Stanton, an energetic woman in her mid-20s who was carrying her nine-month-old baby in one arm. “I mean, with this publicity, it seemed like a natural. People get completely attached to their pets. Donahue had a program about malpractice against vets the other day. It used to be you’d only get $100 in a lawsuit, but now it’s up to thousands. But I can see why. It’s like your pet is part of the family. When I had the baby,” she said, moving the infant into a more comfortable position, “Brutus was truly heartbroken. I’m not kidding. He got very depressed. It was like sibling rivalry. He had to start taking heart medicine to get over the pain.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Bruce Powell.