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Meet Petaluma’s most famous animal mascots

WHAT DID WE MISS?

Do you have a favorite “inanimate animal” in Petaluma that we did not mention here? Send us a photo, and a brief description: What and where is it? When was the photo taken and who took it? What’s not obvious about it that we should know? And add a line or two about why you like it, what it means to you, or what your connection to it is. If we get a bunch, we will run a gallery of Additional Inanimate Animal photos in a future edition of the Argus-Courier. Sens your animal photo to david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

Some are carved out of stone or molded from fiberglass. Others are built from cloth or iron or wood or neon tubes. Many are assembled from parts. Many more are simply stuffed.

But whether born of an artist’s imagination or literally born in the wild — on the way to immortality at the hands of some strong-stomached taxidermist — inanimate animals of every species and medium can be found from one end of Petaluma to the other.

It helps, of course, that they don’t move around so much.

A pair of large metal roosters stand proudly in front of Pete’s Henny Penny restaurant, both sporting pandemic-appropriate masks. At the fairgrounds, a large cement chicken is perched, surrounded by a white picket fence, while a bronze statue of an ugly dog — homage to the fair’s annual Ugly Dog Contest — lives in the fair office. Numerous old hatcheries retain chicken imagery of fading neon, the Petaluma Creamery has a prominently placed cow on its roof and the Foundry Wharf lawn is home to an inch-thick bovine made of iron, decorating the riverside complex with its simple, silhouetted splendor.

Near the playing fields at St. Vincent High school, a marble Mustang rears up majestically. Over at Petaluma High, the school’s sprawling wildlife museum is absolutely crammed with taxidermy animals representing several continents. There are even a few dinosaurs cavorting atop a nearby storage shed.

The list goes on.

There is even an abandoned rooster on the roof of the former Chicken Pharm restaurant. The forgotten fowl can be seen only from the top level of the adjoining parking garage.

Every one of these zoologically edifying effigies has a story to tell. But it’s up to the folks who spend the most time around them to share those tales.

“Charlie Horse came up out of Southern California, maybe 10 years ago or so,” explains Don Benson, owner of Rivertown Feed & Pet Store on 1st Street, where a life-sized fiberglass horse stands sentry at the front door. “He belonged to an art collector, I guess. We bought him along with that little one over there.“

He points to where a small fiberglass horse perches proudly near the store’s rear entrance. Though it does not presently have a name, the animal does carry a sign stating, “Please Do Not Ride the Horse.”

“On the way up from Southern California, the driver got pulled over two or three times on the highway,” grins Benson. “Highway Patrol thought he was a live horse, 'and I guess he was facing the wrong way in the trailer.”

Currently bolted to a rolling metal trolley that allows Charlie to be rolled inside the store at night, the striking equine has become a popular figure in town.

“Oh, yeah, he’s been in a couple of parades, he’s been used for Kentucky Derby Day parties, he’s been borrowed by a few stores downtown for various events,” Benson says, reciting other notable public appearances. “One time, an antique store dressed him up in official equestrian parade uniform. He’s kind of iconic. Once in a while we dress him up, ourselves. Charlie Horse is a lot of fun.”

Travis Day, owner of Thistle Meats on Petaluma Boulevard, confesses his regret that the shop’s own sidewalk sentry, a semi-lifelike fiberglass pig, has never been given an actual name.

The staff just call it “the pig.”

“I guess that’s kind of silly,” Day admitted, “considering how famous he is. If we forget to put out the pig in the morning, people think we’re not open. We don’t even use an open or closed sign. We just put the pig out and people come on in.”

Once or twice, the pig has spent the night out on the sidewalk when someone forgot to bring it in. On such occasions, strange things have occurred.

“Before COVID, during Happy Hour, we’d get people walking between the bars at Seared and Risibisi,” recalls Day. “And a lot of people would try to ride the pig. A kid riding the pig is one thing. That’s cute. But when you have adults sitting on him, trying to take a selfie, it can get pretty hilarious. Fortunately, the pig seems to have a very high weight capacity.”

Day, who took over ownership of the butcher shop four years ago, says the pig was part of the deal

“All I know about its background is that the pig is French,” he says, “and ever since the original owner bought it, it’s become a hallmark of Thistle Meats.”

Oh, and one more thing.

“I don’t know the details,” Day says, “but I’ve heard that the pig was lent out once to be used in a play somewhere around town. So he’s got stage experience, too. And now I guess we’d better think up a good name for him. He definitely deserves it.”

WHAT DID WE MISS?

Do you have a favorite “inanimate animal” in Petaluma that we did not mention here? Send us a photo, and a brief description: What and where is it? When was the photo taken and who took it? What’s not obvious about it that we should know? And add a line or two about why you like it, what it means to you, or what your connection to it is. If we get a bunch, we will run a gallery of Additional Inanimate Animal photos in a future edition of the Argus-Courier. Sens your animal photo to david.templeton@arguscourier.com.

To the staff at Rex Ace Hardware on B Street, their own resident animal — playfully dubbed Rex the Wonderbear, on display in the front window — may be inanimate, but don’t call him fake.

“Rex is not even close to fake,” laughs Jeff Thomasini, at his post by the cash register. “Rex the Wonderbear is a real polar bear. He’s just not alive. We had another bear in the window, for years, and then the building burned down. After the fire, we started thinking, ’Darn. We really need a new bear.’ That’s when the Wildlife Museum at Petaluma High reached out and said they had some surplus animals. So the school let us borrow a polar bear — and there he still is.”

Thomasini estimates that Rex has been in his current taxidermy-stiffened state for 40 to 50 years. A wooden sign displayed with the animal enshrines the “wonderbear” part of the mighty animal’s nickname. Not a day goes by that someone walking by doesn’t suddenly stop in their tracks at the sight of Rex.

“Kids love him, dogs bark at him,” Thomasini adds with a smile. “Rex is a Petaluma institution.”

Other local “institutions” are a bit harder to find. But down the street at Copperfield’s Books, observant eyes will detect a pair of colorful Balinese fabric kites suspended from the ceiling. One of them, a massive orange and yellow butterfly, dangles majestically above the heads of shoppers, with a small Spongebob Squarepants doll riding him like a pony at a very strange carnival.

“Murray has been our mascot for at least 20 years,“ says Assistant Manager Ray Lawrason. ”Spongebob has been there about 10. I call him Murray the book butterfly.“

He points across the room to where a similarly massive kite, in the shape of a green dragon with a long tail, floats over the staircase to the used book department.

“He guards the treasure trove,” murmurs bookseller Ross Lockhart, mysteriously. “Every underground lair needs at least one dragon.”

“I call the dragon Wallace,” Lawrason says. “I find it fascinating that more kids spot these guys than their parents do. Kids are used to looking up at the world. When some child gets a little unnerved by the dragon, I just say, ‘Oh, that’s Wallace. He likes marshmallows.’ That usually does the trick.”

Petaluma kids need no such interventions to warm up to one particular inanimate animal, though it might not be accurate to describe Champion as “inanimate.” The antique, coin-operated stallion has been offering children rides in front of Drew and Jack Washer’s Heebe Jeebe General Store for 19 years. The Washers discovered Champion during a desert road trip, at a motel called The Shady Dell, in Bisbee, Arizona.

“The motel was in the process of being sold, and the owners had barns full of stuff that they were going to get rid of, and so we took the plunge and started digging around,” recalled Jack Washer. “One of the first things we saw was Champion, covered in dust and surrounded by the detritus of many years.”

Drew knew immediately that she had to have Champion for the store. A few moths later, Champion began his career transporting Petaluma children to what the Washers call “Cowboy Land.” One of their favorite photographs of a child riding the horse is a shot of a boy in a Star Wars helmet, gleefully mashing movie genres while taking his own ride on Champion.

“It’s still just a quarter for a four-minute ride. Best deal in town,” says Drew. “One kid’s mom told me they came from Penngrove to ride champion, with the quarter pressed in his little hand the whole drive. I could hear him running from car yelling, ’Champion!’ all the way.”

When COVID hit, Champion was placed in quarantine, but know he’s back, with masks required and sanitizer wipes on hand to keep everyone safe.

“I always imagine some young adults sitting and talking in a bar somewhere, post COVID of course,” reveals Drew, “suddenly discovering that they are both from Petaluma. And so they start reminiscing, and one says, ’Hey, remember that horse, Champion, outside that store Heebe Jeebe?’ And the other one says, ’Oh yeah! I remember Champion! Ha Ha!’”

(To see even more photographs of Petaluma’s “inanimate animals,” find this story on Petaluma360.com, in the Arts & Entertainment section, to discover additional images)

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