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In the Realm of Ashes 

For many, the idea of pet funerals brings back childhood memories of shaded backyard graves, with only a rough-hewn cross or perhaps the departed’s name chalked on an old paving slate. As solemn and affecting as these early bereavement rituals are, though, such traditions might be going the way of the Currier & Ives sleighing scene. Earlier this year, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association released its estimated pet spending projections for 2007 and the results were mind-boggling. According to the APPMA, by the end of the year Americans will have spent $16.1 billion for food, $9.9 billion for supplies and over-the-counter medications, $9.8 billion for veterinary care, and $2.9 billion for “other services.” Funerals and cremations factor more than a little in this last category, and few would know more about this aspect of the pet industry than Andrea Walker, assistant manager and cruelty investigator for the Columbia-Greene Humane Society and co-owner, with her mother, Karen Walker, of Buddy’s Place pet crematorium.

Fitting to the emerging form of pet services, there is nothing funereal about Andrea’s appearance. In her early thirties and striking, with multiple ear piercings and elegant Sanskrit tattoos on both wrists, she looks far more like a stylish Pixies fan than a long-faced mortician. Nor does Buddy’s Place possess any of the squalid atmosphere of the dreaded knacker’s yard. Located in the rolling farmlands of central Columbia County, the crematorium is just minutes from both the Merchant and Ivory Foundation and the early 18th-century Luykas Van Alen house, which was used as a location for Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. The area has been likened to the pheasant-filled parklands of England before World War II, and while driving from Albany to Columbia County, I remember why this portion of the Hudson Valley has become the ideal spot for wealthy
urbanites wishing to fulfill fantasies of becoming landed gentry.

Andrea and I meet at a homemade-ice cream stand, unfortunately closed for Rosh Hashanah. Two of her pet dogs are snarfling around the backseat of her sedan, and she tells me that the bulldog named Sadie recently had surgery to implant a titanium kneecap. As I ponder the marvels of veterinary science, Andrea says she has to make a couple stops before we visit Buddy’s Place. Between the humane society, cruelty investigations, and the crematorium, she’s in constant motion, usually with live or dead animals in tow. Today she’s trying to finalize a cremation contract with a local veterinarian, and she makes sure to bring a box of doughnut holes, bagels, and a Buddy’s Place magnet as gifts for the office. Whether it’s aluminum siding, pharmaceuticals, or animal cremation contracts, sales is the same everywhere, and Andrea gets a partial victory when the receptionist tells her the vet will be sending cats to Buddy’s Place, though the dogs, which cost more because of their size and weight, will still go to another cremator, one who the doctor has been doing business with for years. Curious about the eternal feline-canine rivalry, I ask whether she gets more business from cat or dog people.

“It’s really about 50-50. If we get more dogs, it’s probably because we tend to get a lot of big dogs that the owners physically can’t move or bury by themselves.” The Walkers also have trouble with the bigger animals, and a third partner at Buddy’s Place, Ehren Melius—in his 20s, with Hunter Thompson’s “gonzo” symbol tattooed on a forearm—does the heaviest lifting.

From there, we make a short drive to the Columbia-Greene Humane Society shelter. The Hudson Valley is at its autumnal finest, with the air so clear that each yellowing leaf seems encased in glass. As we drive, Andrea tells me that I can compare the broken-down cremator at the shelter with the one she has at Buddy’s Place.

Set along a dirt road running between hay fields, the shelter, once a dairy farm, is a complex of small barns. The main office is surrounded by kennels, storage rooms, sick bays, and dog-walking areas, and a small pet cemetery beneath some pine trees. The office and cat rooms are cheery enough, but space limitations have forced the shelter to use several decrepit outbuildings as well. A couple of them are little more than grim concrete sheds, and it’s in one of these that the retired incinerator squats.

“Get ready to get creeped,” Andrea warns as we approach the former crematorium. Thick vines have grown over the main doorway and we have to squeeze down a mildewy passage between sheds to get to a side entrance. The dingy, unlit and unheated room is dominated by the massive incinerator. I gape at the
rusted-out machine, a hulking, square oven, until Andrea attracts my attention to an even more ominous sight: medical waste containers. “Burning medical waste is a big moneymaker for anyone with an incinerator,” she says. Columbia-Greene used to burn its own waste but now contracts with another incineration service. Andrea explains that many crematoriums, including human ones, burn medical waste. As unappealing as it is, medical waste earns up to $5 per small bag and can be a key source of income for shelters with their own incinerators. Few fi nd this aspect of the shelter business pleasant, and fewer still are willing to talk about it, but the economic incentive for taking in waste is often a matter of necessity for underfunded animal shelters. Desperately lacking in resources, shelters are forced to choose between refusing to accept more animals; overcrowding and the subsequent danger of disease; or euthanasia, all of which hit a nerve with a pet-obsessed public.

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