In some ways, business partners Tony Levine and Ed Jaeger pulled off a flawless strategy. For a couple of feverish years in the late 1980s, they sold half of a stuffed animal at full retail price. The catch? It got the Humane Society and animal lovers everywhere on their tail.
Their idea, Krushed Kitty, was ornamental satire: At a time when millions of people were putting stuffed Garfield window decorations on their cars, Levine and Jaeger marketed an orange-and-black feline torso. Tuck it into a trunk or sunroof and it appeared as though you’d driven off leaving a half-mangled cat in your wake.
It was profitable—and controversial. “I got hate mail from Christian evangelists, literally praying and writing about my deserved damnation to go to hell,” co-inventor Levine tells Mental Floss. But for every critic was someone who didn’t mind a little dark humor.
Pick of the Litter
Accessories to personalize cars have been around for decades. In the 1920s, people attached fake beaver tails to their Ford Model Ts. That gave way to decorative hood ornaments, fuzzy dice, bumper stickers, and then, in the 1980s, the ultimate in auto kitsch: a stuffed Garfield toy that stuck to car windows using suction cups.
Dakin, the company behind the accessory, sold 2 million Garfields in 1987. The plush cat based on the comic strip was so popular that thieves would break into vehicles to swipe them, leaving car radios and other valuables behind.
The phenomenon did not go unnoticed by Levine and Jaeger. The pair—who had been friends while growing up in Tarzana, California—reconnected at a junior high school reunion after a decade apart. They were uniquely suited to come up with a riff on the car décor craze: Jaeger had designed an anti-theft device for BMW radios, while Levine had a degree in product design and once worked at the company that helped produce Teddy Ruxpin, the talking, storytelling bear that also sparked a major toy craze in the ‘80s.
In interviews, the duo didn’t totally acknowledge Garfield as the inspiration. Instead, they batted around a question: “What if a cat tried to go along on a trip with you and didn’t quite make it as you closed the trunk?” (There was some precedent, though it wasn’t gory: Jaeger owned a cat who liked to dive in and out of his car’s sunroof.)
According to Levine, inspiration also came from the Esso (later Exxon) tiger, a mascot that represented the Esso gas station chain in the 1960s. Consumers filling up on petrol could get a fake tiger tail that clipped around the tank, giving credence to the company slogan “Put a tiger in your tank.”
A few napkin sketches resulted in Krushed Kitty, which some would interpret as a satirical take on the Garfield fad. After creating a prototype, the two stuffed it into the trunk and hit the road for a test drive.
“It got a fantastic response,” Jaeger told People in 1988. “People kept honking, pulling us over, asking where they could buy one.”
While it was not explicitly advertised as a spoof, the toy’s distinctive color pattern made it clear: the package urged consumers to “Krush your kitty in your car, work, or home!” The two formed the Krushed Kritter Kompany of Kalifornia and raised $65,000 to finance the project, including $50,000 from Levine’s parents.
“My parents lent me the money to fund our first production run,” Levine says. “I had always been an inventor, and my parents were always supportive of my creative side, but they often said, ‘How in the hell are you going to make a living being a designer?’ Ed and I had gone to a toy trade show. We figured if we sold 500 [pieces], then we would go into production. Well, in those two days, we sold 5000. That convinced my parents the crazy idea wasn’t maybe too crazy.”
Those early orders were just a warm-up: By mid-1988, they had sold 165,000 Krushed Kitty toys. The animals could be found at kitschy shops like Spencer Gifts, where the $18 to $25 novelty toy ($47 to $65 today) appeared to be a hip alternative to the staid Garfield.
“The Garfields have died; they’ve had their day,” one novelty store buyer said. “We thought this would be the next step. Right now it’s not a fad because it’s so new.”
But there was something Levine and Jaeger hadn’t accounted for: the wrath of the cat parents.
Oddly, Krushed Kitty seemed to capture some kind of anti-cat sentiment in the zeitgeist that year. In addition to the mangled feline, novelty stores peddled Earl, the Dead Cat, a flattened plush with a death certificate, as well as a book titled 100 Ways to Kill Your Girlfriend’s Cat, a humor book about terminating the pet.
The December 1988 issue of Cat Fancy, long considered the Bible of cat lovers, carried with it a notice. Krushed Kitty, it said, “is drawing angry protests from animal lovers.” The magazine helpfully included the address of the Krushed Kritter Kompany “if you would like to contact the manufacturer with your opinion of the product.”
The opinion of cat fanciers was, predictably, poor. Phyllis Wright, the vice president of companion animals at the Humane Society, dubbed Krushed Kitty “disgusting.” Wright was particularly outraged at a mention on the product package indicating that a portion of proceeds went to the Humane Society, insisting that no donations had been received. As Wright considered this misleading advertising, she even referred the matter to the California Attorney General’s Office and campaigned for the toy to be taken off the market.
“This is a ridiculous symbol of something that none of us should be very proud of—disrespect for living creatures,” she said. “It is too easy to transfer this lack of sensitivity for cats to other living things like people.”
Speaking with The Los Angeles Times, the business partners countered that they had donated to local chapters, though some were unwilling to accept any money. Eventually, they stopped putting the declaration on packaging, though Levine said he had demonstrated to at least one district attorney in San Diego that the donations were genuine. An ASPCA spokesperson denounced the toy but couldn’t confirm or deny any donations were made by Krushed Kritters, as their fundraising was organized by a third party.
“We made donations from the very start,” Levine says today. “Only one rescue organization returned our check. And that happened a long time after the press started.”
The pushback resulted in at least one retailer, the northeast-based J.K. Gill Company, to pull the product. But Krushed Kritters persevered, with the company later introducing a Krushed Kow, Krushed Armadillo, and Krushed Gator.
While the choices offered variety, it was also a way to communicate it was all nothing more than a joke. “We were surprised by the letters and press it had gotten. Ed and I were both animal lovers and cat owners. We never saw it the way the haters did. I never saw how a stuffed toy was supposed to inspire or support harming animals. ... But all the love letters we got made up for it. One of my favorites was a girl in Japan who sent a photo of her wearing her backpack with the Krushed Kitty she wore to school every day.”
One psychiatrist, Mark Kalish, told The Los Angeles Times that the black humor wasn’t anything to worry about. “It’s all very healthy,” he said. “Tragedy humor is basically a human response against dealing with negative emotion ... it’s a very primitive part of the brain.”
Like most fads, Krushed Kitty had fleeting fame. By 1990, it had all but disappeared. According to Levine, while Garfield creator Jim Davis was amused by the concept, the rest of the braintrust at Paws, Inc., the character’s licensing company, was not. “From what I was told, he was a fan,” Levine says. “The people who had the license for Garfield were the ones not happy with us. There was no way we could win a lawsuit from a company so big. So we said, OK... we will stop. And that’s what we did.”
The ultimate number of toys sold is something Levine demurs on, though he says the pair sold “many more” than the 165,000 number reported.
Though Jaeger and Levine are no longer in business together, Levine says they remain in touch. And Levine is still in the novelty toy market. Among other items, his company, Kizzymax, marketed a popular line of erotically-themed rubber ducks under the name Big Teaze Toys.
“I have been very lucky that I have been able to bring my ideas to life,” Levine says. “It’s not easy at all. But it’s rewarding to know you can pull off things that people think you’re crazy for trying.”