Sept. 13, 2002 -- There's a new option available for pet owners who can't bear to say goodbye when their furry friends pass on: having them freeze-dried.
More and more pet owners — reluctant to bury or cremate their pets, and queasy about traditional taxidermy — are having their four-legged friends preserved by a slow refrigeration process in which all the moisture is removed from their bodies.
Taxidermists say they have seen an increase in requests for pet preservation in recent years, and a few dozen taxidermists around the country have started offering freeze-drying as an option.
Mike McCullough, owner of Mac's Taxidermy in Fort Loudon, Pa., has been freeze-drying pets ever since a friend asked him to preserve his poodle five years ago. But he is still amazed that anyone would want to do it. "I cannot believe that this is happening. I can't believe that people will actually pay me to do this," he said.
For most of the 20 years McCullough has been in business, the bulk of his work was preserving wild animals caught by hunters in the surrounding Appalachian foothills. But he has seen requests for pet preservation flood in, and now most of his time is devoted to freeze-drying dogs, cats and birds for customers all around the country.
Posing Is an Art
McCullough charges $1,000 for a 10-pound animal, plus another $150 or so for each additional pound. Knowing how important the animals are to their owners — "It's a family member, it's not a trophy that they have taken hunting," he says — he asks them to provide photos taken when the pet was alive, as well as extensive pet bios and detailed instructions for how to pose them.
"Recreating a family member is hard, so you have to have a little bit of artistic ability and a little bit of knowledge of anatomy," he said.
After receiving a pet's body, McCullough stuffs it and treats it with chemicals. Then he poses the pet on a wooden board and places it first in a freezer, then in a freeze-dryer at 12 degrees Fahrenheit. After a pump sucks the air out of the freeze-dryer to produce a near-perfect vacuum, the ice in the corpse gradually escapes in the form of water vapor, which is ejected from the chamber.
When the pet is fully dried out — which takes two to six months, depending on the size of the animal — he mounts it and adds finishing touches, such as spray-painting the tongue.
‘What a Pretty Cat’
McCullough said that when owners first see their preserved pet, they often cry.
True to form, when David Kasner, a college student and aspiring body builder from Long Island, N.Y., finally saw his pet Shih Tzu, Dakary, dried and mounted, he shed a few tears.
"I didn't think I was going to have this kind of reaction," he said, sniffing.
Kasner said Dakary, who died of a rare blood disease at the early age of 3, was his best friend. "I said, 'You are going to be with me forever.' I promised, and when I make a promise, I never break it," he said.
At Kasner's instruction, McCullough mounted Dakary in a glass case on a carved wooden base.
Another customer, Gail Timberlake, had her cat Father Ron preserved in a restful pose, curled up and asleep. "I've had strangers come in and say 'What a pretty cat,'" she said. Timberlake's response is to tell guests he is freeze-dried and offer to let them pet him.
Timberlake had 21 good years with Father Ron, and did not want to be left without him.
"As a little kid I loved stuffed animals, and what's better [than] to have your beloved cat as a stuffed animal?" she said. "I just thought for me it was the perfect solution to what to do with my most beloved friend in the whole world."
Death With Dignity
Before word spread of his freeze-drying business, McCullough was struggling to pay his bills. But then the media heard of it, and he was featured in newspapers from San Francisco to Bangkok, Thailand. Now he is a local celebrity, and has more business than he can handle. While most taxidermists work two jobs to make ends meet, McCullough is now getting offers to franchise his freeze-drying operation.
Freeze-drying is less invasive than traditional taxidermy, in which an animal's hide is skinned from its body and stretched over a plastic mold. However, many people regard it as morbid.
McCullough disagrees. "Is this less dignifying than putting them in the ground? Or cremation? … I don't think it is," he said.
Kasner said that seeing Dakary preserved the way she had looked in life was a comfort to him: "I think it — for people like me — almost puts me at peace."
Interest From Two-Legged Creatures
McCullough admits that by freeze-drying pets, a certain line has been crossed. But he believes it's just the beginning, and that one day humans might be freeze-dried too. He says he has already had at least one inquiry from a would-be customer interested in being preserved after death.
McCullough is looking to the future.
"Let's look at it as the guy that wants to be freeze-dried and buried just so he doesn't deteriorate. … I mean, they can dig you up 100 years from now and you're going to be fine."