The Pet-Death Business

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

"You should give them your headshot," says Clarke. This job has unusual hours, but he encourages Yost to go on auditions. In mere seconds, Yost produces an 8x10 black-and-white glossy of himself, and is scampering toward the Law & Order set. Meanwhile, because Pet Haven is parked in a tow-away spot across the street, Clarke has asked Olivia's owner to come downstairs to the car. By the time Yost returns, headshot still in hand—"They said I need to find something called the honey wagon?"—Olivia's owner is on her way to the car.

This return to the owner—a woman so depressed that her male companion has to prop her up—is strained, and she seems more angry than grateful after having to negotiate her way across the street before exchanging a check for her Olivia.

Clarke tries to pat the man on the shoulder, but it doesn't have any effect. Wordlessly, the couple leaves. He doesn't seem ruffled. Sometimes people express their gratitude, but "they've just lost their best friend," as he puts it, and he knows they're not always happy to get them back.

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

Before heading off for their next delivery, Clarke lets Yost drive around until he can find the honey wagon, the mobile trailer that houses the extras' casting office. But when he finds it, it's locked, and he's told he should just mail in his headshot "I'm kind of disappointed. I'd have done anything to be an extra. I'd lay in the street, I'd play someone dead in a chalk outline—I don't care."

Clarke's next mission is to return a dog to a family in the Bronx. He gives it to a teenage boy, along with a handwritten sympathy card (which he does for every pet.) The boy's mother is not home, nor did she leave a check, but Clarke leaves the pet with the grateful boy, even though it was to be COD.

"What am I going to do? They trusted me with their pet, so I am going to trust them," he says. "I am sure it will be fine."

When Clarke arrives at his final stop of the day, a canine pickup on Houston, he calls the client, who sounds deeply depressed and says he'll call him back in a few minutes when he's ready to say goodbye. Clarke doesn't push him. A half-hour goes by, then 45 minutes. After an hour, Clarke, somewhat nervously, finally calls back. "Hi, this is Louis from Pet Haven—are you OK? You need a few more minutes? A few hours? Well, we don't want to come before you're ready."

Clarke ends up coming back the next day without an additional charge. "Sometimes, people just aren't ready to let go," he says, "and it would be cruel to push them."

He doesn't approve, however, of never saying goodbye. Clarke finds services that freeze-dry dead pets and return them looking more or less like they did in life, unhealthy. "Those people are taking advantage of people who are inappropriately grieving," he says. "They don't need a freeze-dried pet. They need a therapist. They need a family friend, who will help them. Because what they want is something that they can't ever have again."

But Chris Calagan of Perpetual Pet in West Virginia describes freeze-drying as "being like a picture, but only better." Owners (some from New York) Fed-Ex their pets to Calagan after a night in the freezer. Calagan defrosts them, removes the internal organs, and poses them in a reverse-osmosis drier that sucks out all the moisture, a process that can take up to four months to complete. Admitting "it is not for everyone," he says that "if people don't like it, they don't need to get it done." Most people who get their pets freeze-dried, he says, keep them until they themselves die and are buried with them.

Burial with a pet is, of course, not limited to the freeze-drying crowd. According to the staff of Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, people who cremate their pets will routinely put in their wills that the cremains are to be buried with them, or that their own ashes are to be mixed with their pets' after they themselves are cremated.

There's even a rather famous New York couple who did something like this. Up the Hudson River, in Hyde Park, lies a small, private graveyard. It is only big enough for a husband, a wife, and one other occupant. The third grave does not belong to any of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt's six children. It belongs to Fala, their Scottish terrier.

sthrasher@villagevoice.com
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