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New Trend in Remembering Your Pet

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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When Gail Timberlake's cat, Father Ron, became ill, she suffered through the trauma of euthanasia and faced the prospect of life without the pet she had loved for 21 years. Then her veterinarian suggested an idea that will allow Timberlake to keep Father Ron's image alive.

Joining a small but growing number of grieving pet owners, Timberlake is having Father Ron freeze-dried, a process that can produce a remarkably life-like replica of an animal. Timberlake said she expects to have Father Ron back in her home in Winchester, Va., when the process is complete in about 90 days. She plans to place him on a bedroom chair that he used for afternoon naps.

``I have two new kitties, and he will be just sort of Father Ron, and he'll watch over them,'' said Timberlake. ``I'll be very happy to have him home.''

People who have lost pets know how mournful the experience can be and often seek to memorialize them. Some have their pets buried in a marked grave, others have them cremated and keep their ashes. Still others, choose a symbolic way to express their love, like creating a Web site as a tribute.

Outrage Over Freeze-Drying

Now, some taxidermists are promoting the option of freeze-drying a pet, saying that it can offer solace to people who feel they need more than an urn on their mantelpiece. Others find the prospect gruesome and some experts believe that it may have emotional drawbacks.

Dr. Elliot Katz, a veterinarian who founded the animal-rights organization In Defense of Animals, called the preservation of a dead pet repugnant and said that the practice treats the animal as a trinket to be owned.

``Since I tend to think of my companion animals as members of my family, I would not do that to my companion or a family member. I don't think I would freeze-dry the body of my child or my parent and put them in my house,'' he said. ``They obviously did it in Egypt, but I don't think they envisioned them seeing the light of day.''

Psychologist Michael Rogell, Ph.D., who counsels a pet-loss support group at Michigan State University's College of Veterinary Medicine in East Lansing, said he had mixed feelings about the procedure. For some people, the ability to talk to and pet the image of the dead animal may help in the grieving process, he said. But, he added, ``If it's going to be sort of a deified object and become something that's not allowing the person to move on, I don't think I'd be real encouraging of it. If they want to hold onto the past, like in 'Psycho,' that is ghoulish.''

Why Woman Preserved Her Pet

Yet Canadian Kelly Hockley of Sunderland, Ontario, dismissed those concerns, saying she sees nothing macabre about keeping her deceased cat in her home. She said she had 18-year-old Doober freeze-dried after he fell seriously ill and was euthanized. Preserving him in that way helped her feel her old friend was still with her, she said.

``It looks like he's sleeping,'' said Hockley, who paid $900 for the service at Pet Preservation in Omemee, Ontario. ``I walk by and pat him. I can talk to him. The thought of burying him and having him rot in the ground – I couldn't."

The number of pets that are freeze-dried is still tiny, although the phenomenon has grown enough that it merited a recent front-page feature in The Wall Street Journal.

Everything from human tissue to coffee has been freeze-dried, and Al Anger, a pioneer in using the procedure to preserve dead pets, predicts that the method, which is often cheaper than burial, will catch on – slowly.

``The average price to bury a cat, a full burial, is $800,'' said Anger, whose company in Wetumpka, Ala., Freezedry Specialities Inc., sells freeze-drying machines to taxidermists. ``The other thing is, pet cemeteries in the United States – there are about 800 of them – but it's very hard to get a permit to build them.''

Six- to Eight-Week Process

The freeze-drying technique costs about the same as a full burial and takes six to eight weeks, said Anger.

``The market is limited to the type of people that would do it, but you have to consider that 60 percent of the households in the United States have pets, and this has never before been marketed and publicized,'' he added.

Taxidermists, who traditionally focus on preserving wildlife killed in the hunt, prepare a trophy animal by skinning it, eviscerating it, rebuilding the animal's bone structure with artificial materials and then stuffing the animal with padding. The preserved skin is stitched back on.

The freeze-drying process starts when the dead animal is placed into the refrigerated machine and cooled to about 12 degrees Fahrenheit. Air is sucked out, and the ice that forms in the body is turned into water vapor, which leaves the chamber. Little by little, the corpse dries completely, and preservatives are injected to make sure it never decays.

The animal can be posed, and given a desired facial expression, However, the eyes are glass.

Anthony Eddy, who runs a freeze-drying facility in Slater, Mo., said he's been plying the craft for 15 years and has clients all over the country. Some bereaved pet owners are so devoted, they drive their deceased animal thousands of miles to get to his facility. "We had one woman who drove all the way in from California. She came back the same way to get him and take him home," he said.

Anger admitted that only a minority of taxidermists uses his techniques. Most are purists in their devotion to preserving only hunting game so he is hoping to persuade veterinarians to get involved with the process.

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