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Catman's devotion worries observers



Published: Sat, August 27, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



One bioethicist said the man is risking his health having so many surgeries.

SEATTLE TIMES

SEATTLE -- At a time when plastic surgery has become fairly commonplace, some believe the Catman of Whidbey Island may have gone too far.

Dennis Avner, who goes by his American Indian name, Stalking Cat, is known around the world as the Catman. Over the past 25 years, Stalking Cat, 47, has received so many surgical and cosmetic procedures he's lost count.

And he says all of them -- from full-face tattoos to fanged dentures to steel implants for detachable "whiskers" -- have been done to achieve oneness with what he calls his totem, the tiger.

"I'm Huron and Lakota," he said, relaxing barefoot in his Freeland, Wash., living room. "I'm just taking a very old tradition that, to my knowledge, is not practiced anymore."

Doctors react

But some doctors contend that Stalking Cat displays a form of body dysmorphic disorder, which affects one's perception of personal appearance to the point of obsession.

Glenn McGee, director of the Center for Bioethics at Albany Medical College in New York, said it's true that traditional peoples around the world have, like Stalking Cat, tried to emulate animals as a model for virility. But McGee said he believes the extreme to which Stalking Cat is pushing medical technology is dangerous.

"Cosmetic surgery is a practice based on informed consent" that needs to balance the risks with the benefits, he said. McGee believes Stalking Cat is seriously risking his health by undergoing so many surgeries.

"It is possible to have a coherent view that is nonetheless detrimental to one's well-being," McGee said. "This is a patient who's being harmed by medicine in the interest of his tradition."

Reveling in image

The result is certainly manifest in a startling way in his appearance. Stalking Cat has been featured on "Ripley's Believe It or Not!," "Larry King Live," VH1's "Totally Obsessed" and other television shows. There are several Web sites, blogs and chat forums devoted to him, including his own, www.stalkingcat.net, and the online journal devoted to him, www.livejournal.com/users/stalkingcat.

He insists his unusually startling appearance is nothing more than trying to make physical his spiritual and traditional calling. He was raised in a small Michigan town near the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa in Sutton Bay. Respect for the old ways, he said, was passed on to him by a Huron medicine man. Undergoing extreme measures of body modification, he said, is simply taking advantage of modern technologies to practice a devotion that's been lost.

Ongoing transformation

Stalking Cat started his transformation in 1980 after leaving his post as a sonar submarine technician for the Navy. He eventually settled in the San Diego area as a computer technician, and began the series of procedures that has resulted in his current appearance.

He has had all his teeth removed and replaced with tigerlike dentures and fangs. He has had his lip split to resemble the mouth of a cat. He has six stainless-steel mounts implanted on his forehead and 18 piercings above his lip to which he can attach whiskers. He has had nose and brow implants, and silicone cheek, chin and lip injections. The tips of his ears are pointed. And he has so many tattoos they almost cover his body.

Stalking Cat said he has lost track of how much his transformation has cost, though one figure quoted on a Web site estimates it would cost more than $200,000 -- a figure Stalking Cat would neither confirm nor deny. He would only say, "It's a lot."

The man responsible for the majority of Stalking Cat's most extreme procedures is Phoenix body-modification artist Steve Haworth. He could not be reached to comment.




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