Giant, cuddly germs are catching on

STAMFORD, Conn. —Jim Henson's Muppets made pigs and frogs endearing, and Walt Disney turned a common rodent into a cultural icon.

Now, Drew Oliver thinks it's time for bacteria, viruses and other maligned microorganisms to share the love.

Instead of standard Christmas gifts, a growing number of people are looking under the tree for giant stuffed cold germs, cuddly E. coli, hugworthy heartworm and other oddities from Oliver's Stamford-based company, Giant Microbes. Oliver says the toys are true to the microbes they represent except, of course, for their eyes and enhanced colors.

Once popular mostly as "geek chic" among medical workers and niche groups, the stuffed microbe toys have spawned Facebook fan sites and collectors who eagerly await each new release.

They pounced on this fall's newcomers — including measles, rubella and the oh-so-popular diarrhea — and posted pictures on their Facebook pages of their new mini-microbe Christmas tree ornaments.

Being a purveyor of pretend pestilence might seem an odd career turn for Oliver, 40, who was a Chicago corporate attorney when he incorporated Giant Microbes in 2001.

As a father of four, he thought stuffed versions of microbes that cause sore throats, the flu and other common ailments could help children understand the illnesses and avoid some of them with good hygiene.

Sales launched in 2002, but business took a few years to pick up and, even then, largely in niche markets such as museum shops and college bookstores. But in the last few years, the stuffed germs have spread like the common cold microbe that remains its flagship and biggest seller.

"All four of my kids are really into science, and my two oldest girls thought they were the coolest thing ever," said Joslyn Gray, a Giant Microbes fan who lives near Houston and writes a blog "There's just so much crap out there for kids these days. To find something that's clever and smart and still fun is really great."