A Dozen Years On, Austin Organization Still Offering Stuffed Animals for Adoption
By Alexa K. Haverlah
When Wendy Mitchell, 45, moved to the North University neighborhood in Central Austin in 2009, she was looking for a novel way to participate in the 37th Street annual holiday lights display that took place during December. She had the wacky idea to invite people to engage with her collection of 15 stuffed animals in a “petting zoo.”
After the petting zoo, Mitchell conceded she had too many stuffed animals to fit in her apartment. She decided to put them up for adoption, starting The Stuffed Animal Rescue Foundation, or The SARF.
Mitchell began collecting discarded stuffed animals from friends and thrift stores, repairing any damage, writing short biographies for the animals, sewing their clothes and giving them props to put them up for adoption at petting zoos held every December.
At petting zoos, prospective parents read the animals’ stories and submit adoption applications. The application includes questions about any stuffed animals currently owned and their temperament(s). Applicants are asked to describe their own personalities, how they discipline stuffed animals and explain why they want to adopt a rescued stuffed animal.
In November, after a dozen years of offering stuffed animals for adoption at petting zoos, Mitchell opened The SARF’s brick-and-mortar headquarters on Hancock Street. It’s more than Mitchell’s creative outlet, it utilizes the power of stories to give value to discarded items, she says.
“The SARF is important because it tries to create its own economy, one that’s based on the value of storytelling rather than on the value of money,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell estimates that between 250 and 300 of her rescued stuffed animals have been adopted by kids and adults.
Popular stuffed animals can receive up to 50 applications, so the matching process can be selective. Mitchell and a group of her friends make up the committee that reviews the applications. The committee is looking for attention to detail and creativity, Mitchell says.
The first tenet of The SARF is that stuffed animal adoptions are always free. While a small number of stuffed animal adoption agencies exist, The SARF is the only one to offer free adoptions in an effort to create a more equitable application process.
Another tenet is to reduce, reuse and recycle. Nearly everything at The SARF is repurposed material.
Mitchell believes it’s important to see the value in discarded things because we already have more than enough toys in the world and still we continue to produce more.
“I’m pretty sure there are already enough toys in existence to last for the next five generations,” Mitchell said. “We’d just have to track them down and fix them and tell stories that make them cool again.”
Mitchell says The SARF is ultimately a writing project. “You don’t buy [a rescued stuffed animal], you have to write why you want it,” she said.
“[The SARF] rewards attention and creativity and imagination rather than rewarding people simply for being lucky enough to have parents who can buy them things, or adults who can buy things themselves,” Mitchell said.
Growing up, Mitchell’s parents didn’t have a lot of money, so her dad would make things out of whatever was lying around. Mitchell hopes to bring rescued stuffed animals to kids who don’t have many resources and need stimuli.
“We live in a very unfair system, and I’m trying to make my part of it fair,” Mitchell said.
The opening of The SARF’s headquarters in November coincided with the Austin Studio Tour. Mitchell created a stuffed animal exhibit she called “The Still Life.” In the exhibit 10 stuffed animals were dressed as artists and paired with artwork that Mitchell said the animals “created.”
The dedicated space allows Mitchell to rescue more animals, offer stuffed animal repair workshops, clothes-making classes, petting zoos, storytelling events and open mics.
Mitchell’s day job as a web developer at Mixtape Marketing in Austin and her freelance web design business finance the foundation. Mitchell also accepts donations from community members.
In November, during the Austin Studio Tour, Austin resident Sandy Reynolds stopped by The SARF to inquire about attending a clothes-making workshop for her granddaughter’s stuffed animal “Sloth.”
Reynolds and Mitchell bonded over not liking dolls while growing up. Stuffed animals are often softer and more snuggly than dolls, Reynolds says.
“There’s something so yummy about stuffed animals,” Reynolds said, wrapping her arms around herself. “Yummy is not just for food.”
Austin resident Sebastian Bentkowski was impressed with the foundation’s practicality and community-building potential.
A space dedicated to preservation teaches kids to care for their things, Bentkowski says.
“I can see grandparents taking their grandchildren here,” Bentkowski added, sensing the possibility for cross-generational bonding. “We need more ideas like this.”
Julia Cotlar, 17, Caroline Cotlar, 15, and Audrey Cotlar, 13, stopped by The SARF in November per their grandmother’s recommendation. The girls own stuffed animals for their sentimental value and because they’re “squishy,” Audrey Cotlar says.
Julia Cotlar has had zebra “Zeebee” her entire life. “He’s grown with me,” Julia Cotlar said.
The girls didn’t complete applications to adopt stuffed animals, though. Without jobs to support the animals, they said they were “underqualified.”
Mitchell estimates 200 people visited The SARF during the studio tour. Another chance to adopt a rescued stuffed animal begins December 10 at the annual 37th Street holiday lights display.
“When you give the animals a story, people want them,” Mitchell said.