All Dogs Go to Heaven

Animals at the end of life

Would You Like Your Pet Stuffed, Freeze-dried, or Cryonically Preserved?

Odd things people do with the dead bodies of companion animals

The most important question we face after a pet has died is "What will happen to the body?" Even for those who are unsentimental about dead animals, there are reasons why disposition—or, to put it more crudely—disposal-of the carcass matters. ("Corpse" refers only to a human body; dead animal bodies are "carcasses.") As the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension explains, animal deaths must be handled properly for at least three important reasons: health (to limit the spread of disease), environmental protection ("nutrients as well as harmful materials released as dead animals decay can drain or be carried into nearby water"), and appearance ("people may find the sight of dead animals 'very disagreeable'"). They list the following acceptable ways of managing animal deaths: rendering, composting, sanitary landfills, burial, and incineration.

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I'll talk in future posts about burial and burning, the two methods most commonly chosen for disposing of companion animal bodies. But here I want to take you on a quick tour of some techniques for preserving the body, if you simply cannot let go, or if you want a permanent and life-like reminder of your animal.

Taxidermy and Freeze-Drying

Taxidermy and freeze-drying are two ways to preserve an animal's body in perpetuity. Traditional taxidermy used to be the method of choice for people wanting a permanent keepsake. Taxidermy produces a three-dimensional replica of an animal. Sometimes the actual skin of the animal is mounted on some kind of frame; sometimes the animal is reproduced using nothing but man-made materials. Not surprisingly, the preserved animals tend to look stuffed.

A more life-like option has become available, and appears to be replacing taxidermy as the preferred preservation method: freeze-drying. The Perpetual Pet website boasts that freeze-dry pet preservation creates a lasting memorial and more importantly, preserves the pet in a natural state, without any alteration in appearance. This allows pet owners to see, touch and hold their pets, and in a sense, "never have to let go."

To freeze-dry an animal, you place it in a sealed vacuum chamber at very low temperature. Over time, frozen moisture is converted into a gas and then extracted. By removing the moisture, you stop the process of decay. The drying takes considerable time. For a large dog like my Vizsla Ody, it might take up to 6 months. Perpetual Pet suggests that you chose a sleeping pose, for the most natural-looking results, but they will accommodate other requests. The website only list prices for animals weighing 0-20 pounds; anything heavier and you must call for a quote. Maybe this service appeals especially to people with small pets, like cats or Yorkies, which would be relatively easy to display on a table or mantelpiece. A 7-10 pound pet will cost $695. I'm guessing Ody would cost well over a thousand,

I asked one of my veterinarian friends if she had knew of clients who chose freeze-drying or taxidermy and she said no. She has, however, had people request that she cut off an animal's tail, or sometimes a toenail down to the stub, so that they can save a part of their animal's body. She has also had people ask for whiskers, hair, eyelashes, and a skull.

 Cryonics

Unlike taxidermy and freeze-drying, which are available only for animals, cryonics has developed primarily as a way to preserve the human body, and cryonic preservation of pets arose only as an after-thought. Although cryonics and freeze drying both involve extreme cold, they differ in important respects, both technical and philosophical. The Cryonics Institute explains:

Cryonics is a technique designed to save lives and greatly extend lifespan.  It involves cooling legally-dead people to liquid nitrogen temperature where physical decay essentially stops, in the hope that future technologically advanced scientific procedures will someday be able to revive them and restore them to youth and good health. A person held in such a state is said to be a "cryopreserved patient", because we do not regard the cryopreserved person as being really "dead."

Cryonics would be most effective if it could be accomplished while an animal was still alive, since tissues and brain cells would not yet have begun to deteriorate. But unfortunately, this is still illegal, for pets and people alike. In order to have your pet cryopreserved, you must keep the body frozen from the moment of death, and carefully pack the body in dry ice so it can be shipped to Michigan. Excluding the cost of membership in the Cryonics Institute, Ody would probably cost about $6500 plus shipping and veterinary costs. They say, "If these prices seem excessive and you can be satisfied with the possibility of someday having a clone of your pet, you can save your pet's DNA with the Cryonics Institute for only $98." CI reports that at the current time they have 58 pets and 31 pet DNA samples in cryostasis.

If you cryogenically preserve your pet, you will not have the pleasure of its company in your house; the body must remain suspended in a tank of liquid nitrogen at the cryonics facility at a carefully controlled temperature of -196° Celsius. But you can live with the hope that someday you could have your actual pet again—or an exact clone of your pet—once science has progressed enough that we can reanimate frozen bodies, or somehow upload animal souls into a brave new cyber-universe.

Bioethicist and writer Jessica Pierce, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming book The Last Walk: Reflecting On Our Pets at Life's End. more...

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