The Pet-Death Business

All dogs go to heaven. Yours will probably get there in an urn.

The inner sanctum of the crematorium is so clean and smooth that it is easy to forget what is actually going on. The main bay houses all of the ovens, which vary in size, one large enough to cremate horses or even wildlife from the Bronx Zoo. (A container of equine ashes looks more like a human coffin than an urn.)

While crematorium manager Stephen Petrosky checks out one of the computer-controlled ovens, which has just shut off, he notes that he is the owner of six dogs himself, has worked here for 12 years, is on call 24 hours a day, and regularly dispatches drivers in the middle of the night to pick up pets.

The oven's heat is now uncomfortable, but not unbearable. Inside, there isn't much left to see. The remains of a dozen pets that blessed a dozen different homes have now been reduced to so many trays of bones.

Rover goes to heaven in style.
Jared Gruenwald
Rover goes to heaven in style.
The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery
Jared Gruenwald
The Hartsdale Pet Cemetery

From here, Petrosky enters an area where the bones become ash. He picks up a metal container about the size and shape of a bucket of KFC. The bones inside actually resemble well-cleaned chicken drumsticks. The tag identifies them as belonging to a 52-pound cocker spaniel. He pours the cocker into a grinder, and the raucous noises it produces are the first concrete sounds of what actually happens here.

He empties the bones—now mostly dust and marble-size chunks—into a bag, just as one of PCA's vans pulls up, hauling about 1,400 pounds of cargo, a typical load. Paul Baier emerges from it. He's a small, wiry man, with a kind smile. Like most of the men who work here, he's got a good sense of humor about what he does, balanced with a serious respect for the deceased animals he handles.

Tired from this particular shift, Baier has just hauled a 120-pound Saint Bernard up a flight of stairs from a basement by himself (he weighs all of 140 pounds), and his back is hurting. But he doesn't complain too much. The Saint Bernard died in a pose that made it easier to carry, and, besides, it was nothing compared to the 300-pound mastiff mutt that had to be moved with a forklift.

Dogs are, however, somewhat unusual here. About 80 percent of PCA's animals are feline, mostly kittens that never got a home and grew into cats no one wanted. It's staggering to see the animals he has brought in for cremation once they have been offloaded from his truck. In the refrigerated loading dock, where they will reside until they are cremated, are literally hundreds of dead cats in plastic bags, stacked up in trash bins. Paws, stiff with rigor mortis, stick out here and there. They will remain in this pose until they are reduced to bones, then ash.

These animals will never make it to an urn. Most of these particular cats are strays brought in en masse from a city pound. Their nine lives depleted, they will burn, then spend eternity in a landfill.

Individual pets brought to PCA for private cremation will be washed, carefully prepared, and returned to their owners in a nice tin with a card.

Tooling through the city delivering cremains to pet owners, former bank executive Louis Clarke recalls starting Pet Haven after burning out in the corporate world a few years ago.

Clarke's usual assistant, Shawn Robinson, is currently on a year-long sabbatical to spend some time with a living animal for a change. He is riding across America on a rickshaw, with his 80-pound pit bull, Cooper, in tow.

Today, Clarke is being driven around Manhattan by David Yost, who is filling in for Robinson and is on his second day on the job. He doesn't seem too fazed by his new, unusual gig, but Yost, who has the build of a mob enforcer, seems like one of Tony Soprano's chauffeurs as he navigates the city while his boss works the phone.

In fact, that's what Yost, a would-be actor, would rather be doing. "My dream was to be an extra on The Sopranos," he says, and he even tried to go to an open call once. "I was heartbroken when that one went off the air."

"Hello? Hi, this is Louis from Pet Haven," Clarke says into his cell phone, shuffling through papers. "I have Olivia ready to drop off." He always uses pets' names and speaks of them in the present tense, even after they are cremated.

It can be awkward to get a COD under the most normal of circumstances. When the exchange of goods for payment involves a deceased pet, the transaction has to be handled delicately. Further complicating matters today is that there is nowhere to double-park on the midtown street that Olivia would have looked out on from her owner's window. Law & Order is using most of the street for a shoot, and is blocking easy access to Olivia's building.

"Law & Order! I love Jerry Orbach!" exclaims Yost. "I'd love to work as an extra for them!" (He does not seem to realize Orbach went the way of Olivia some years ago.)

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