In one Appalachia town, pets never die

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Fri, June 19th, 2009

Naomi is a cat and has been curled in the same spot on her favorite couch for seven years.

Pets have been buried in cemeteries for millennia but "Perpetual Pet" lets owners preserve pets in their favorite position on their favorite couch, forever. (Photo by Michelle Enfield)

Pets have been buried in cemeteries for millennia but “Perpetual Pet” lets owners preserve pets in their favorite position on their favorite couch. (Photo by Michelle Enfield)

“People will come in our house and say, ‘I don’t think your cat is breathing, she hasn’t moved for a whole hour,’” said Chris Calagan. “We will say, ‘you’re right, she’s dead.’”

Calagan and his wife Sandra run Perpetual Pet, a business operated out of their West Virginia home. Through a time-consuming and bizarre process, they draw the moisture out of people’s pets, preserving the animals indefinitely in predetermined positions.

The Calagans founded the company when Naomi, their beloved calico of nearly two decades, developed kidney failure.

“The idea of losing her was hard, but I’m a guy and my attitude was you lose them and that’s part of life,” said Calagan. “My wife said, ‘we gotta have her stuffed.’”

Some taxidermists have the necessary equipment to preserve things like velvet antlers and turkey heads; a handful preserve pets too. The Calagan’s took a road trip to meet one taxidermist but ended up learning the preservation process and buying the necessary machine, a unit slightly larger than a commercial freezer. They now have six; each costs $20,000 and can process one mid-sized pet or two small ones.

First, pets are bathed and conditioned, and the internal organs removed and replaced with organic filler. The animal is put in a specially designed glass cylinder made only in Holland and freeze-drying begins. A seven pound Chihuahua or a medium-sized house cat will take two months to dry, a large dog twice that. Dried pets are packed with foam and shipped back to their owners. There is often a waiting list for a time in one of the Calagan’s freeze-driers.

“People think you just pop them in there and it comes out ready to put on your shelf,” said Calagan, “but the equipment takes constant monitoring.”

The process may seem odd but pets have been preserved in one way or another for millennia. When cats of the wealthy died in Ancient Egypt they were embalmed and adorned with papier-mâché masks then placed in a mummy case or bronze coffin and entombed in a cat cemetery. Buried beside them was food for the afterworld, mummified mice and a pot of milk.

In 1888, a farmer in the Egyptian town of Beni Hasan accidentally discovered a massive cat tomb. Inside were the remains of thousands of felines, dating from 1,000 to 2,000 B.C. Fur was stripped from the bones and shipped to a plant in Manchester, England, where it was turned into fertilizer. About 90 cats were sent to the British Museum.

 

A decade after the Beni Hasan cat tomb was discovered, the city of Paris declared that no longer could owners toss their dead pets in the trash or dump them in the Seine; cats and dogs would have to be buried in graves at least 100 meters from the nearest dwelling. A year later the first pet cemetery was founded on a slim plot of land on the outskirts of the city. It was called Le Cimetière des Chiens and in the past 110 years, more than 40,000 animals have been buried there. Tenants include cats, dogs, fish, hamsters and birds, as well as a racehorse, a lion and a monkey.

 

Pet cemeteries or the backyard remain the most traditional spot for dead pets but Calagan says freeze-drying is catching on. When the Calagans opened the business seven years ago there were just several taxidermists preserving pets; now about a dozen do it and another dozen mom and pop shops only do pets. This worries Calagan, not because it means competition, but because novice freeze-drier operators mangle pets, which pet owners sometimes ship to him to fix. “People are very extreme about their pets,” said Calagan.

One family from Japan wanted to deliver a bunny in person but Calagan and his wife talked them out of it. A woman from Houston, distrustful of any mail carrier’s ability to handle a dead pet, drove her dog Cody to West Virginia.

“We even have people who have buried their pets and found out about us a day or two later,” Calagan said. “They call frantic and say, ‘hey, is it too late?’ Typically, the answer is yes, but in a cold enough climate we can exhume the pet.”

For more of Michelle Enfield’s photos of the Paris pet cemetery click here.

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