A few words included in the online portfolio of Steve Haworth, a Phoenix-based "3-D body modification artist," perhaps best sum up the worldview of individuals who undergo procedures mainstream society has deemed aberrant and, in some cases, dangerous: "... one person's idea of body modification is going to be a pierced ear lobe, and another person's idea of body modification is to look like the el diablo himself. Just because you don't agree doesn't make it wrong."
Haworth (whose website declares "has been labeled the father of modern body modification") is one of the main people credited for assisting a San Diego area electronics and computer technician in transforming himself into his "totem animal," a tiger.
Dennis "Stalking Cat" Avner ("Cat" for short), a resident of the small, high-desert town of Guatay, is not one to shy away from the subject of what he considers frequent exploitation of his startlingly feline appearance by journalists-especially of the tabloid genre.
"The media is, for the most part, the lowest form of life on the planet," he told one reporter approaching him for the first time. "I've had some good experience with media, but it has been mostly bad," he said.
Avner said that to achieve his goal, he has undergone many painful operations over the course of many years without the benefit of anesthesia "because the person who's doing them is not a medical doctor." He added that it's plastic surgeons' "interpretation of the status quo that counts-not what's going help me be more comfortable in who and what I am."
(According to a write-up about Avner published on the BBC Online's Science & Nature section, "It is illegal in the United States for a medical professional to alter someone's appearance beyond what society deems normal.")
Some changes the tall, solidly built, longhaired Avner has made include the surgical construction of a feline cleft lip, which is attached to his nose-altered to more closely resemble that of a tiger. His upper lip has been pierced with attachments into which he can affix long, synthetic whiskers. Implants and silicone injections lend more animal-like contours to his extensively tattooed, tiger-striped face.
His teeth have the pointed sharpness of a predatory carnivore. His ears are also pointed, his lobes elongated. Cat-like contact lenses and long talons extending from his fingertips round out the overall look. (Photos of Avner are posted on his website, www.stalking cat.net.)
Born in Michigan, Avner is a Native American descended from the Huron and Lakota tribes. "I'm following an old Huron tradition," he said. "It's a part of me.... I get it from my ancestors in my dreamtime."
Avner described a totem as a guide and protector that helps "you in your day-to-day life."
"I associate most with tigers," said Avner, who has kept domestic cats as pets all his life. "But in Native American culture, there's no real distinction between the different cats."
Although Avner said a good portion of the people he encounters "are behind what I'm doing," he does also get many "intentionally stupid," combative reactions. "If they're trying hard enough and in the right way, they may end up succeeding" in provoking him, he warned.
He affirmed it's possible but unlikely that he'll ever reach a point when he feels his physical transformation is complete.
Also from the BBC write-up: "Professor Kevin Gournay of the Institute of Psychiatry says that it's possible that Cat could have an unusual form of body dysmorphic disorder (BDD)."
"That is an actual affliction," Avner said. When asked if he had any problem with Gournay's suggestion, Avner replied, "No, it's just somebody's opinion. At least they did some research and put some thought into it."
"I have no point to make," Avner continued. "However, if there is any point to get across, it's that people can be who they are, despite what anybody thinks.... Most people don't have the ability or the faith in themselves or the courage or whatever to be who they are."
And, citing his age, 45, as a motivating factor, Avner said he won't wait for a change in public opinion or the development of more advanced surgical techniques to get what he wants.
To achieve a more dramatic, pointed-ear effect, Avner said he helped developed a technique that destroys some of the ear's cartilage so that "not only would the ear not want to go back to its original shape, but the tissue that developed as the ear healed would keep it in the new shape.... I'm doing what I can to push the envelope."
Bottom line: "I'm doing it to be more comfortable with who I am-period," Avner said. "It is old Huron religion. There aren't many Hurons left. There are other people that would like to do it for other reasons. And last time I checked, it's a free country, and we ought to be able to do that for whatever reason."