Milo grips at my shoulders and then looks at me with scared eyes as I pass him over to the elf and she places him on Santa’s lap. He squirms and buries his face in Santa’s curly beard.
“Hey, buddy! Look over here!” the elf says from behind the camera.
But Milo just stares wildly at the door, his arms sticking out stiffly from Santa’s tight grip around his waist.
The elf shrugs and presses the shutter on the camera, capturing the moment.
You can’t hope for much more from a cat.
Twenty minutes earlier, my cheeks are flaming as I push a shopping cart into the CapitalCity PetSmart, my 3-year-old black cat howling from inside his little cage, which is jammed into the children’s seat.
PetSmart stores across Canada and the U.S. offer a “Santa Claws” in-store photo event the last three weekends before Christmas. Pet-owners can bring their animals into the store for a picture with Santa and a festive photo frame for $10, half of which goes to PetSmart pet charities.
I’ve spent three Christmases with Milo, but I’d never been tempted to bring him to get his photo taken with Santa. I’d often tried and failed to make him wear a miniature Santa hat, but cats – at least, my cat – are usually uncooperative in these matters. Once the hat was strapped on his head, Milo would flail his front paws spastically, batting at the offending item until he knocked it off. Then, he would grab it in his teeth, lie on his side, and kick at it with his back legs, a flurry of red velour and claws.
I always did this in the privacy of my own home, where my pet obsession could remain a secret indulgence.
Now, as I wheel Milo toward Santa in a store full of people, I’m on full display.
The average Canadian household spends more on pet expenses than they do on childcare, according to 2007 census data. The pet industry is a $4.5 billion business, with marketers and stores trying to appeal to the parental nature of pet-owners. The trend is known as the humanization of pets.
As a single woman in my twenties without kids, I’ve tried not to think of my cat as a child. Milo doesn’t wear clothing, he doesn’t eat off a plate and I have never called myself his “mom.”
But Santa photos seem like the first misstep.
The operations manager assures me I’m not alone, boasting that last weekend the store sold 55 photos.
“We’ll have lines, and dogs everywhere,” he says with a grin.
There are already dogs everywhere. Behind me, in the grooming studio, four large dogs howl as they get haircuts. I can hear barking from the training class at the back of the store. The yapping of two small Chihuahuas in matching Christmas sweaters cuts through the air.
Milo cowers in the back of his cage. He’s outnumbered.
Santa informs me that, in his experience, about 70 per cent of the animals who get photos taken with him are dogs. Santa usually works in the cat adoption centre, but today the middle-aged employee has donned a red suit, black boots and a bushy beard.
“Santa, your gloves!” says his elf Samantha, 19, as she throws a pair at him.
Often, larger stores will hire professional photographers, elves and Santas for the yearly “Santa Claws” event. But this CapitalCity PetSmart gets less traffic than some of the other five locations, so they assign their own employees to the job.
Samantha and Santa say they don’t mind playing the part.
“I’ve been hanging around animals my whole life,” Samantha says from beneath a pointy green hat. She gestures to her striped tights, her curled felt shoes, and her green jumper.
“I’m really friendly, and I’m willing to dress up in costumes like this.”
Santa adjusts his beard and shrugs.
“It’s something new to do,” he says earnestly, his eyes wide behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
“The animals mostly behave.”
But Luna the German shepherd isn’t cooperating. The friendly dog keeps turning around to sniff Santa, ruining the shot.
“Sit, Luna!” her owner pleads.
She grabs a squeak toy and holds it behind Samantha, who has the camera. She squeezes it.
Luna turns, her ears perked.
Samantha presses the shutter.
“You only get a few shots where they don’t look terrified,” Samantha admits later, as she rests her feet at the printing station.
“The parents love it, but you can tell the animals are hating life.”
Later, after I’ve sent my enraged cat home with a friend, I explore the rest of the store. There are aisles of Christmas gift ideas for pets. I’m seriously tempted by a set of strap-on antlers for cats or small dogs, but decide Milo had been through enough that day.
As I pass display after display of festive stockings and Christmas-coloured stuffed mice, I wonder if I’ve neglected Milo by assuming he didn’t care about presents.
After all, he’s just a cat, not a child.
Tell that to the mother of Oscar.
“He’s my little boy. He’s like my son,” she says of her yellow Labrador retriever.
Oscar is a model of obedience. He sits demurely by Santa’s feet and looks straight at the camera. His ears perk up when she offers him a treat.
“There we go,” she says proudly as Samantha snaps the perfect picture.
Oscar wags his tail as his owner shows me a wallet full of photos of the dog. She says she has commissioned three oil paintings of Oscar from a professional artist in Toronto.
“Let’s go and see what you want to ask Santa for Christmas!” she says to Oscar as they head toward the dog section, Oscar sniffing at the bags of food they pass on the way.
An hour later I see her beaming as she pushes a cart full of bags past the cashier.
After a lull in action, I check in on Santa. It’s been almost an hour since anyone came in for a photo.
As I round the corner toward the photo area, Santa’s head sinks lower toward his chest. His eyes are closed and his beard is crooked. Swathed in sagging red velour, he is dwarfed by the large green bench under him.
A tiny poodle in an argyle sweater trots by. The snap of the dog’s nails on the linoleum jerks Santa back to attention, and just in time.
Max the “skinny pig” is here for a photo.
Skinny pigs are a breed of hairless Guinea pigs. They’re smaller and more delicate than the furrier variety. Max is almost a year old and he looks like a miniature hippo, grey and folded. He’s wrapped up in a blanket.
“It’s his first Christmas,” his owner, 21, explains to Samantha, cradling Max like a newborn.
Santa holds Max gently as Samantha moves in for a close-up.
“Well, don’t you have a lot to say!” Santa coos to the chirping critter.
Later, Santa talks happily about his three cats at home and tells me Milo is very handsome. I’m doubtful as I look at the photo of the two of them together, Milo staring like a stunned deer into a headlight as Santa holds his bulky black body tight to stop him from running away.
I tell him I love my cat but that I was embarrassed to bring Milo to the store.
“I don’t want to look obsessed with my pet,” I tell Santa.
He laughs and tells me I’m in the right place for it.