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"People don't realize how devastating this can be," says Richard. "For a lot of older people, this pet—it's the only living thing that they ever talk to."
"Death is strange, and people are strange," he says, and there is no predicting how people will react to their loss of a human or an animal. He has seen people who can't be bothered to go to their own spouse's funeral, and he has seen grieving pet owners who seem like they won't be able to go on.
"I had a woman once who called me, who couldn't let go of her cat who had died. She called and said, 'What do I do?' I said, 'Put it in a cold place, call me when you're ready to say goodbye, and I'll come pick it up.' She didn't call back, and days went by. Finally, she called and said, 'I'm ready.' "
When he went to pick it up, he understood the only reason she had called.
Her freezer had stopped working.
Pet owners who don't want the fanfare of a funeral home can proceed directly to a crematorium. It's not necessarily the cheapest way—it costs only $25 to drop your deceased animal at New York City Animal Control—but it's cheaper than going through a vet or human funeral home.
Everything around the Pet Crematory Agency in Babylon says death. It is located adjacent to the 330,000-plus graves of the Long Island National Cemetery, which is even larger than Arlington.
Aside from the massive chimneys protruding from its roof, PCA's building blends in pretty well to the industrial park where it's located. It is owned by James Aracri, a kind of Jared Kushner of the pet-death industry. In shades even on an overcast day, he is a trim 35-year-old with the self-confidence of a businessman just returning from a Tony Robbins seminar. (Aracri's businesses range from pet cremation to his own line of wasabi-flavored table condiments.)
Aracri comes from a family of pet owners, who were looking for a "family business" to invest in. After they bought PCA five years ago, Aracri claims, they put a million dollars into it—and it seems to show: The volume of business that PCA does with municipal shelters is so large that its billing is negotiated not in the number or pounds of animals, but in tons. The transportation hub monitors a fleet of vehicles that make pickups and drop-offs at the 350 vets and shelters where PCA has contracts. The five ovens are extremely modern and, per EPA regulations, don't emit any color or smell.
The reception area, ironically, looks much like an old-school Italian funeral home. Aside from a display case of tombstones and urns, it's hard to tell from this comfortable room just what goes on behind the walls.
PCA breaks up its jobs into three categories: private individual cremations (one animal, one oven), private group cremations (multiple animals are placed in different labeled baking pans in the same oven), and mass group cremations (many animals in one oven, with no ashes returned). It does about 200 private cremations a week. Many of them have their own unique touches: "People will want their pets done with a special item sometimes—a blanket, their doggie bed," says PCA administrator Lisa Clemente. Or an accompanying last supper, such as "a chicken cutlet, their favorite chew toy, or a bag of kibble or treats," she adds.
Clemente says 70 percent of PCA's big business comes from New York City. But about 30 percent comes from suburban Long Island, where, presumably, people have yards. "People don't stay in one house their whole lives anymore," she says. "They will call [PCA] and say, 'I have a weird question. I buried my pet, and I'm going to move. If I dig it up, can you cremate it for me?" (The answer is yes.)
And the process is especially careful these days. The gruesome scandal of the Long Island Pet Cemetery in 1991—which returned fake ashes to pet owners—never seems to be far from PCA's mind. Staffers take great pains to identify each animal throughout their process, so they can assure customers that they are getting back the returns of their own pet.
For some customers, this is not enough. Off the reception area, there is a small viewing room, normally used for a family to say its last goodbye to a pet after the staff has cleaned it up. But the room also has a tiny window, covered with blinds. Once a pet has been taken away, the especially skeptical can raise the blinds and look right into the mouth of one of the crematorium's massive ovens. From this vantage point, a family can watch their beloved pet being put into the oven, to assure they are getting the proper cremains.
Aracri and his staff are pretty open, and don't mind letting customers see what actually transpires. Unlike the human death-care industry, which does much of its work in secret, Aracri thinks that the more that people know about pet cremation, the more likely they will be to do it.