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opinion | jennifer graham

Trashing stuffed animals


In its latest list of the worst Christmas gifts for children, the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood neglected to mention one: stuffed animals.

True, stuffed animals don’t horrify on sight, like the iPotty and the heat-packing dinosaur. But any veteran parent can tell you: If you’ve got more than one, you’ve got too many stuffed animals. The things are like scabies — easy to contract, maddeningly difficult to eradicate. In households with multiple children, they take up a lot of space in the ever-growing mound of trash we’re not allowed to throw out.

The trash police may come after us if we dare sneak a cellphone, a compact fluorescent bulb, or an almost-empty can of spray paint into the bin on garbage-collection day, let alone a dysfunctional microwave that’s been dissected by a curious teen. (Trust me, I’ve tried.)


When it comes to stuffed animals, however, we ourselves are the trash police. Like the town overrun with small furry creatures in the 1984 film “Gremlins,” we can’t bring ourselves to destroy anything so precious, even if it’s taking up all the closet space.

Every child needs a stuffed animal to love — in fact, it could be argued that every adult does, too — but unlike a good toy truck, or a wooden rocking horse, most stuffed animals have no future as family heirlooms. Moreover, many thrift stores and charities won’t take them because they harbor mites and germs and are difficult to sanitize. The teddy bear may be a beloved symbol of American childhood, but cuddle a used one, and you might come down with head lice. That, presumably, is why the Salvation Army and Boston’s Cradles to Crayons don’t want your used Build-a-Bears no matter how well dressed they are.

Without preventive measures, infestation can occur in the most conscientious of families, because stuffed animals multiply like velveteen rabbits, and modern parents lack the emotional steeliness required to throw them away. We like to say it’s because we’re all enlightened recyclers — heeding the creed “use it up, wear it out, make it do” — but the truth is not so noble. We suffer from Pixar complex, the inability to throw out toys, knowing they will wail in terror en route to fiery obliteration at the dump. Thanks, “Toy Story.”


But “The Velveteen Rabbit” contributed to toy guilt, too. In that story, published in 1922 (and currently in production at the Boston Children’s Theatre), a beloved stuffed bunny is ignominiously deposited in the trash because he harbored germs from the sick child who loved him. Spoiler alert: The rabbit escapes his cruel fate with the help of a little magic, which we could all use when trying to purge toy bins in anticipation of the arrival of more stuff on Dec. 25.

Enter the magicians at Project Smile in Hopedale, which collects stuffed animals for police officers, firefighters, and paramedics to offer traumatized children. The nonprofit takes in between 500 and 800 stuffed animals each month, and has received boxes from as far away as Japan, revealing stuffed-animal overpopulation to be a global concern.

But before mailing your donations (to PO Box 336, Hopedale, MA 01747), check the Project Smile website to ensure that yours qualify. They have to be smaller than 21 inches, and they can’t have battery compartments. Most importantly, they have to be new or “like new,” founder Catherine Pisacane told me. If the animals are “well-loved” like the velveteen rabbit, Project Smile can’t use them; about 70 percent of donations have to be discarded, Pisacane said.


“Discarded” as in “donated elsewhere”?

Alas, no, “discarded” as in “thrown out in the trash.” Which is the ultimate fate of many gifts that will be exchanged this Christmas — certainly those bought in last-minute desperation at the corner drug store.

In Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory,” he recounts saving coins all year to make whiskey-laced fruitcakes with an elderly cousin. Fruitcakes, too, are frequently thrown out, but absent the angst; they have long been a punchline, the embodiment of a throwaway Christmas culture. Lately, though, our society has been morphing into one where, even though few things possess real value, nothing can be discarded.

In this new world, it’s an additional kindness to consider a gift’s lifetime trajectory. This means, when shopping for children, back away slowly from the stuffed-animal display. As with all social ills, prevention is the best solution.

Jennifer Graham writes regularly for the Globe.