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May 10, 2012
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Pets after death

What you may not know about the aftermath of animal remains

Photos and story by Amber Williams

Ben Ulin shows off his award for “Showtime’s Funniest Person in Iowa” in 1986, an ad showing an upcoming performance at The Comedy Shop at the Spaghetti Works. Image courtesy of Ben Ulin

Some people believe animals have no souls. Others wince merely upon reading that. In this story, it’s safe to say all involved believe animals indeed have souls, and some go so far as to consider pets their children. So, armed with that amount of conviction, some topics regarding animal care can be as taboo as Ted Nugent showing up at a hippie festival wearing a mink coat.

People love animals, but a pet’s story does not always include warm milk and squeaky toys, puppy tails wagging and kitty cats purring. Even the heart-string tugs of Sarah McLachlan’s TV commercials don’t give justice to what can happen to an animal who isn’t adopted into a safe home. Animal shelters, such as the Animal Rescue League of Iowa and Furry Friends in West Des Moines, say they do everything they can to be preventative and pro-active when it comes to animal care — turning “animals” into happy and safe “pets.” But, as goes the cliché, the devil is buried deep in the details.

That dirty word

All living things eventually die — one way or another. Death. It’s a hard fact of life. It’s so sensitive of a subject, in fact, that some folks in the animal industry, such as shelters, veterinary clinics and animal testing facilities, are sometimes reluctant to divulge the unsavory details of their business if they are not required to by law. Words like “euthanasia” spark fires among animal activists that can be difficult to extinguish. Regardless of the politics or morality of the issue, it’s a fact that some animals are put down for a variety of reasons, such as public safety, shelter space or extremely poor health.

Regarding the latter, Animal Rescue League of Iowa Executive Director Tom Colvin says: “We get asked a lot, when is it a good time to euthanize your pet, and that’s a tough one. You don’t want to euthanize a minute too early or a minute too late. As a pet owner, I go by the philosophy that you just have to know your pet — when they tell you they’ve given up and their quality of life is not there anymore.

“Unfortunately, some people keep pets alive for themselves instead of what’s best for the animal. Veterinarians often say euthanasia is the last kind thing you can do for your pet.”

Euthanasia involves injecting the animal with sodium pentobarbital, which puts it to sleep and stops its heart and brain. Some people choose to hold their pet in their arms during the injection, as the transition is quick, Colvin said.

“We tell people what to expect beforehand and walk them through it,” he said. “Most people want some quiet time alone with their pet after that. It’s a very emotional time.”

The pet owner also chooses whether or not to be a part of the on-site cremation of his or her pet, and staff in that department said most people choose to be present. Colvin said even animals with no owner and the “dead-on-arrivals” are treated with the same “kindness and dignity.”

“Our staff spends time with the animals. It’s the same process,” he said, except the cremains go to the landfill instead of into an urn.

Despite the compassion behind it, euthanasia is arguably the least popular job function of the ARL, sometimes pitting it against no-kill shelters. But, as ARL Manager of Special Gifts and Partnerships, Stephanie Filer, points out, “no-kill shelters shut their doors when they’re full, so they don’t have the space issue. So, where do people go when they’re turned away?”

They go onto a waiting list, according to Britt Gagne, director at the no-kill shelter Furry Friends, 1211 Grand Ave., West Des Moines. Gagne says, much like the ARL, it’s their policy to advise and coach pet owners in an attempt at keeping the animal in the home. But when that doesn’t work, they either wait or find a shelter that will take the animal.

“We’re always filling all the spaces we have,” Gagne said, admitting there are likely times when people on the waiting list turn to the ARL, which has a policy to never turn an animal away.

So, for a shelter like the ARL, space becomes an issue, which is why the ARL built a newer, larger facility in 2008 at 5452 N.E. 22nd St. The construction of the new facility created a domino effect with one thing leading to another: new building, more awareness, more funding and support, more preventative and adoption programs and, thus, more adoptions. In fact, Filer said the ARL hasn’t euthanized a perfectly healthy animal due to space issues since last summer (which was a cat), and no dogs have faced that fate since the new building opened. (The ARL was not willing to discuss the average number of animals euthanized for space prior to 2008.)

“We’re very proud we have not had to euthanize for space in that amount of time, especially with the number of animals we have. That’s pretty amazing,” Filer said.

ARL representatives don’t like to discuss euthanasia, Filer admits — even those that are done for safety and medical reasons. That’s why they focus not only on the animals, but on “owner responsibility” types of programs, such as dog training classes and spay/neuter services.

“The way we look at it is that it’s our responsibility to protect the public as well as the pets. That’s why Animal Control is listed in the public safety budget,” she said.

Whether it’s a safety risk, a severe medical problem or a space issue, euthanasia is a last resort among most professionals and pet owners. But, should that time come, then what?

The last kind thing

Ideas of where the soul ends up after life are left to individual beliefs. But what happens to our remains — or to those of pets — is something that can be controlled. For centuries, deceased household pets would find a final resting place under a tree in the backyard or even down the toilet and cycled through the sewer system (depending on the animal). In some unfortunate cases, they “go for a ride,” never to be seen again.

Today, though, many city ordinances, such as those in Des Moines and West Des Moines, ban home burials of pets. So, people have come up with alternative ways of dealing with the death of their animals — some involving simply calling animal control, others ranging from the extreme to the odd. For example, pet cloning has become an option for the wealthy. According to Discover Magazine, a couple in Florida spent $155,000 to have their golden Lab cloned in 2009, purchasing an exact DNA replica of their deceased pooch. Others have also resorted to employing the services of a taxidermist to keep their pet’s memory alive, though it’s difficult to find a taxidermist locally who will do it.

“We strongly discourage it, because most people will be left unsatisfied,” said Jim Waltz of Norwalk. His wife, Sondra, has been a taxidermist since the late 1960s. “When you kill a pheasant, you don’t know its every little nuance like you do your pet. Your pet’s personality cannot be captured in its face. It cannot be done. People will never be satisfied. It’s not the way to go.”

But if one is so determined, Waltz recommends having the carcass frozen first. And most taxidermists will require payments up front in order to protect themselves from money-back demands that are likely to occur. Most Des Moines-area taxidermists say they’ve never done a pet and have never been asked to.

“You don’t mount Mom or Dad and set them up in a corner, so don’t mount your pets,” Waltz advised.

So, perhaps the truly “last kind thing” one can do for his or her pet is what was done while it was alive: Treat it as a member of the family — as a human. When a relative dies, we begin the grieving process by viewing the body, attending a funeral and tending to the remains in a ceremonial way, whether they are buried or cremated. That’s where places like LovingRest come in.

The smallest casket

Just north of Indianola, a former Lamoni police officer is buried with his K-9 dog, Lady. They rest in the “Honor Dogs” section of the LovingRest Pet Cemetery. The gravestone they share is one of approximately 350 others in the cemetery. Among the dogs, cats, rabbits, horses, goldfish, frogs, lizards, hamsters and other pets buried at LovingRest, there are also five cremated human beings.

“We take pride in the fact that people allow us to take care of their babies after they pass away — and that’s what pets are to many people,” said Eric Martens, vice president of operations. “I have not met one person who didn’t want to do absolutely the best they could afford for their pets after they pass away.”

It’s becoming an increasingly popular choice, Martens said. Although LovingRest, located at 9924 Highway G24, serves about 98 percent of the veterinary clinics in Des Moines, other similar providers, such as Caring Friends Pet Cemetery in Ankeny, Lensing Funeral & Cremation Service in Iowa City and Memorial Pet Cemetery in Waterloo, operate across the state.

Most pet owners cremate their dead pets because it’s cheaper and it offers more options than having them buried. They can choose to keep the ashes in an urn, sprinkle them in a special place, or they can bury them in the pet cemetery marked by a weather-proof headstone.

“We have people out here weekly; we have people out here monthly; and we have people who have buried their pets and we’ve not seen them again in 10 years,” Martens said. “The popularity is still growing. It’s gotten huge since we first started.”

LovingRest was started by current owner Jim Johnson, who discovered there was a need when his own dog, Teddy, died in the late ’90s. Teddy’s was one of the first graves marked in the cemetery. It reads:


Cemetery Supervisor

Overall Handi-Dog

When Teddy was buried, LovingRest began with only one cremator. Now it has four, adding two state-of-the-art human units (though they don’t cremate humans) and one large animal incinerator that is used for horses and group cremations. Group cremations are the economic way to lay a pet to rest, Martens explained. The animal carcass is added to the incinerator with others, and they are cremated together. Their ashes, as one, are sprinkled in the “Scatter Garden” in the cemetery, which is basically a rock garden bordered by bricks, each brick bearing the face and name of every animal laid to rest there.

Along with the Scatter Garden and the Honor Dogs, the cemetery is divided into different sections: the Garden of Love, which boasts large headstones; the Estate, for animal lovers and activists; the Pillow Section, where pets are given a casket, a burial and a headstone; the Gentle Giants, where large animals are buried; and the Whale, where children can bury their small fish, reptiles and amphibian pets for free.

“We have a little bit of every type of animal here, even some exotic animals, because we work a lot with the zoo,” Martens said.

Some clients cremate or bury their pets and leave it at that. But others hold actual funeral services — one of which was for a cat that drew nearly 40 guests, Martens remembers.

“We say prayers or read poems, and people share memories and stories at the grave site,” Martens said. “Then we lower the casket, and the owners usually throw the first scoop of dirt onto the grave or drop flowers or trinkets. Sometimes being there for the entire process helps ease the pain — knowing where your pet is — you watch your pet go in the ground, and it helps with closure.”

As with the euthanasia process, about half of LovingRest pet owners are involved in the cremation process, too, which involves simply placing the animal’s body (which is inside a special body bag) into the cremator and essentially flipping a switch.

Martens said LovingRest handles only a handful of pet funerals a year, an average of about one burial per month and as many as one to 20 cremations daily. As the trend continues to catch on among pet lovers around the state, LovingRest grows and expands to supply the demand. A two-story chapel is being built on site, which should be finished this year, he said.

Regardless of one’s personal belief about whether animals have souls or if a pet truly is a family member, the truth is in the rows located at pet cemeteries all over the country. To some pet owners, being buried in the same plot as their dog or cat is akin to any other loved one, and the way their pets pass away and how their remains are treated are important enough to handle with that same care and respect. Death is inevitable, but it seems those days of Fido taking that fatal drive with Dad and Smith & Wesson have aged out — at least in the metro — and are replaced by a more sentimental humanity.CV

Caption: ARL Surgery Cat: The new ARL facility includes three in-house vets and updated surgery centers where dogs and cats like this one can get spayed or neutered before being adopted.

Caption: Loving Rest Kitty Coffin; One of the smallest caskets available at LovingRest Pet Cemetery, equipped with the linen lining and the pillow.

Caption: loving rest kelso grave: An example of a “family grave” in the Estate Section of the LovingRest Pet Cemetery. It includes both humans and their pets. The crematory in the background will soon include a two-story chapel for pet funerals.

Caption: loving rest cremation: LovingRest vice president of operations, Eric Martens, in the process of a cremating the remains of a client’s pet dog. The ashes will be boxed with a poem and a piece of a golden heart (the other half of which is traditionally buried with the ashes) and shipped to the owner in Grinnell.


Top 10 reasons for owner release


Abandoned 1,629

Too Many Animals 414

Euthanasia Request 355

Moving 328

Can’t Afford 313

Unwanted Litter 279

Litterbox 200

Allergies 198

Behavioral Issues 165

Owner’s Health 140


Euthanasia Request 554

Can’t Afford 278

Behavior Issues 268

Moving 262

Unwanted Litter 219

Too Many Animals 204

No Time For 139

Abandoned 131

Owner’s Health 93

Landlord 82

Source: Animal Rescue League of Iowa

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