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Public Displays: Bringing Roadkill to Life

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Not long ago, Sam Sanfillippo, a longtime member of the Lions Club, saw an article in the club magazine about albino squirrels in Maryville, Missouri. He wrote to the head of the Maryville club. "I said, 'If you don't mind, if one of your albino squirrels gets a heart attack and dies or gets hit by a car, would you mail me one?' Six months later UPS drives up with a box. We have a beagle. The beagle just started barking and making a lot of commotion. We let him off the leash, and he headed for that box. There were eight albino squirrels inside, packed in dry ice." The squirrels were destined for the basement of Madison's Fitch-Lawrence-Sanfillippo-Cress Funeral Home, where mourners who wander down for a cup of coffee might stumble on Sanfillippo's museum, a sort of Madame Tussaud's for roadkill.

Sanfillippo's been working on his collection for 50 years, glass-enclosed tableaux of squirrels and chipmunks following human pursuits. One scene features a long, polished wooden bar with a stuffed squirrel acting as bartender. On the shelf behind it is a row of little airplane liquor bottles. Squirrel patrons sit along the front of the bar, their drinks before them. One has had a drop too much and is passed out. Another, wearing headphones, sits at a piano, while a squirrel couple dances. Three squirrels sit at a table playing poker, one holding up his hand. "He just got a royal flush," explains Sanfillippo.

Another scene shows a chipmunk carnival. Chipmunk ladies wearing brightly colored veils and skirts stand onstage for what Sanfillippo calls his "girlie-girlie show." A merry-go-round and Ferris wheel slowly rotate, bearing chipmunk passengers. Yet another tableau has a cowboy squirrel on a bucking horse before a backdrop of painted desert and blue sky.

There's also a badger in a red-and-white Wisconsin Badgers sweater and baseball cap; it's holding up a little football. And there are fish and large-game trophies, though they're mounted in the usual way.

Sanfillippo's father was a commercial fisherman from Palermo, Sicily. Sam was born in Wisconsin in 1920, one of 12 children, and started fishing when he was four years old. He went into the funeral business in 1941 but was drafted the next year, serving as a paratrooper and nurse in seven major European battles, including the D day landing at Omaha Beach and the Battle of the Bulge. He was wounded five times and earned a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, and a Bronze Star. "I should have been dead in 1944," he says. "It's a miracle I'm here."

His interest in mounting his fishing and hunting trophies began when he was still a kid--some of his specimens are 65 years old. He says most of the mounting was done for free by a relative. The big trophies include a 59-and-a-half-pound arctic char and a 495-pound blue marlin he caught while he was stationed in Florida during the war.

A longtime friend and fishing buddy of the late Wisconsin governor Warren Knowles, Sanfillippo has won many national fishing competitions and has attended every annual Governor's Fishing Open since Knowles started the event in 1965. He likes to fish in a red Badgers jacket covered with Wisconsin pins and invites anyone who wants to learn about fishing to give him a call. He even provides rods and reels to children who can't afford them.

Knowles helped Sanfillippo gather roadkill for his small-animal displays. "He knew the wardens, and they'd tag it for me," Sanfillippo says. The animals would come packed in dry ice, and he would send them along to the taxidermist with a description of how he wanted the animals posed. "I usually do a sketch," he says.

As word of Sanfillippo's collection spread, he began to get donations. "Someone will come in and say, 'Sam, can you give this little animal a funeral?' Then it goes into the display."

More albino squirrels have arrived, and each time Sanfillippo sends a donation to the Maryville Lions. So far the albinos have been loosely arranged outside a display case, riding in pink Barbie convertibles that match their eyes. But Sanfillippo intends to use any new albinos for a football-stadium tableau. "I think they'll probably be at a football game," he says. "I'll have some of them in the bleachers. Maybe I'll have a squirrel in the middle throwing a pass."

Sanfillippo keeps the exhibits separate from the central basement room, so mourners don't have to see them if they don't want to. But he says he's received only compliments. "When we have a funeral, the young people up there, they've lost grandma or grandpa and they feel pretty bad and they're crying," he says.

"Then I take them down here, and it cheers them up. The kids are so happy to see it. I tell the kids most of the little animals are killed on the golf course and on the road. I don't like killing little animals."

He recalls one wake that was attended by 100 people. When he looked into the parlor they'd all disappeared: "They were all downstairs looking at the animals." --Mary Wisniewski

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Armando Villa.

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