What: Life-size animal models used for veterinary training
Who: Craig Jones and Jacqui Pruneda of Rescue Critters LLC
Where: Van Nuys, California
When: Started in 1998

To many people in his inner circle, creating life-size models of pets seemed like a silly business for Craig Jones to start. But to him, it made perfect sense.

Jones, 41, sensed a business opportunity after completing a pet first-aid class with the American Red Cross. He discovered that the unrealistic dog manikin they used for training was offered by only one company in the U.S.

Jones, a former emergency response instructor, knew that his background in emergency medicine for humans, coupled with his contacts in the special-effects industry, were the resources he needed to create lifelike animal manikins. Together with his wife and co-founder, Jacqui Pruneda, 39, Jones began designing a true-to-life dog manikin that would fit the training needs of veterinary professionals. "We didn't want it to look like a stuffed animal you would buy at a toy store," he says. "We wanted it to look realistic."

In 1998, Jerry, Rescue Critters' first dog manikin, was born in the couple's garage. The American Red Cross became their first customer, and response to Jerry was so positive that word soon spread throughout the veterinary field. Other manikins quickly followed: Fluffy the cat; Lucky, a life-size rescue training horse; and Critical Care Jerry and Fluffy, more advanced versions of the originals that train students in life-saving techniques such as IV insertion, suturing wounds, intubation, and listening for heart and breath sounds. Primate manikins, birds with real feathers for trimming, and manikins that let users draw blood are in the works.

Rescue Critters has since moved from its garage location to a storefront and now sells its manikins to customers worldwide, including veterinary technician programs, fire departments, U.S. Army canine hospital units and police department K-9 units. Each animal model is made to order, and customers can add features to base-priced models according to their needs. With 20 to 25 requests per year for manikins and projected 2005 sales of $1.3 million, it seems like Jones' idea wasn't so silly after all.