Where creativity wags its tail

 SECAUCUS, New Jersey — Once they finished shaving the cats, the glamour event of the dog-grooming show began.
         Angela Kumpe had won the “creative challenge” event the past two years at Intergroom, one of the more prestigious competitions on the calendar. First, she clipped and colored a standard poodle into an ode to Elvis Presley — Elvis on one side, a guitar on the other. Last year, she turned a dog into a peacock. She is one of the best at canine topiary.
         This year, Kumpe, a 34-year-old from Little Rock, Arkansas, spent more than six months turning a poodle into a buffalo. It probably would have won April 18, beating the seahorse, the Lady Gaga and the Mad Hatter.
         But Kumpe, who has become the groomer to beat at contests like this, changed her mind after her mother died February 24. “She was my biggest fan in creative grooming,” Kumpe said.
         So Kumpe turned a dog into a living memorial.
         Intergroom is a three-day trade show for the industry. About 150 exhibitor stalls offered everything from tools (scissors, clippers, combs, brushes), equipment (cages, tubs, dryers), product (shampoos, conditioners, colognes, gels, glitter and coloring) and apparel (mostly smocks for groomers and showier items for the dogs).
         Someone offered psychic tarot readings for dogs. Seminars on April 18 included “Clipper Care Clinic,” “Pet Facials” and “Blue Terrier Heads.”
         In the distance, dogs barked. Behind a shield of curtains, people huddled around dogs standing still atop tables. The dogs were sprayed with bright colors (sometimes through a stencil), sculpted with gel, sprinkled in glitter and otherwise primped to Technicolor perfection.
         There are few limits in creative grooming. Sometimes, people make dogs look like different animals. There have been lions and ponies and camels that have forced closer examination to verify the species.
         “People sometimes say, ‘Oh, poor dog,’ ” the mistress of ceremonies Teri DiMarino told the audience that surrounded the show area at the Meadowlands Exposition Center. “But their perception is limited to their front feet. Really. All they know is that people are paying attention to them. They love it.”
         Contestants generally spend six months or more preparing the dogs. First comes the idea. Then the dog’s coat is shaved with clippers, cut with scissors and fine-tuned occasionally. Colours are added in the weeks before the event. Up until competition day, the dog looks like nature gone awry, as if they were groomed in the dark with blunt instruments and dipped into a box of melting Crayolas.
         “Some people ask, ‘Was she born that way?’ ” said Sami Stanley, busy putting finishing touches on her standard poodle, the dog of choice for its thick, sculpt-friendly fur and relatively large size. This one had a dragon sculpted on one side and a jumping goldfish on the other. Stanley called it Zen Poodle.
         “If you have a better name than that, let me know,” she said with a shrug.
         Diane Betelak was the judge. A frequent winner of these increasingly popular contests, Betelak said she looks for whether the clipping is concise and the color vibrant, and whether the design is original, among other things.
         “Some ideas have been used over and over, like a carousel horse,” Betelak said. “So if you bring me a carousel horse, it better be spectacular.”
         She awarded third place to the Mad Hatter, accompanied by three people fully decked in other Alice in Wonderland costumes. The dog “wore” a fur coat coloured brown, had the March Hare on its left rear leg and tea cups on its right. Brynn Haynes of Whitehall, Pennsylvania, the groomer and the Red Queen, said she spent 25 hours creating it.
         Second place went to a dog that, when it stood on its hind legs, was meant to look like a poodle-sized seahorse. It stood before a sea-themed vinyl shower curtain, which hid a man holding a plastic toy that made bubbles to drift through the scene.
         The winner came as little surprise. After scrapping plans to bring her buffalo-themed poodle — a buffoodle? — Kumpe had started from scratch a week earlier with a friend’s standard Poodle that had not been clipped in nearly a year.
         A woman’s body was sculpted onto one side of the dog, head turned away and hair tied in a bun. “It’s a grieving angel for my mom,” Kumpe said. Her mother, Linda Smead, was 66. Kumpe was dressed in white and wore white wings. Down the dog’s rear leg, and on most of its opposite side, were fragile-looking purple flowers and green leaves, part of the dog’s manicured coat and marked with exacting detail. They matched artificial flowers and greenery at the foot of the dog’s table.
         The design drew finger points and picture takers. When DiMarino told the audience that Kumpe’s design represented an angel for her mother, a buzz went through the room. Kumpe won the $1,500 first prize.
         Her father, Norman Smead, sat in the front row, holding a small dog. The dog’s white coat was smeared with faded colours. The father’s eyes were filled with tears.