What happens to Fido after he dies?
Yes, of course, all dogs go to heaven. Their bodies, however, are another matter. And when dealing with those, pet owners have options aplenty: cremation, burial at a pet cemetery, taxidermy, even freeze-drying or turning their ashes into synthetic diamonds.
Now comes another: composting. A startup in Washington state, Rooted Pet, says its new service is something the “pet aftercare space” has lacked — and one owners can feel good about. Letting kitty decompose in a mixture of organic matter uses less energy than firing up a cremation oven, requires less land than a graveyard, and is a poignant, dust-to-dust type of process, general manager Paul Tschetter says.
With cremation, “you’re quite literally vaporizing the soft tissues. ... It’s pulverized and put in a cute box and given back,” said Tschetter, whose firm is outside Olympia, Wash. “I feel like we’re adding more meaning back into this whole death process.”
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This could be a mental hurdle for many grieving pet owners, but Tschetter is probably onto something. The $67 billion pet industry includes a growing aftercare segment catering to owners who, after spending lots of money keeping animals they consider family happy and alive, are willing to go to extra lengths when the pets die. More than 700 pet cemeteries and crematoriums in the United States are one testament to the demand.
“If you’re in this business right now,” Tom Flynn, the president of Hillcrest-Flynn Pet Funeral Home and Crematory in Hermitage, Pa., told Bloomberg Businessweek in 2012, “you’re just sailing with the wind right at your back.”
Tschetter describes himself as a “serial entrepreneur,” who, with a friend who had years of experience in waste management and composting, realized a few years ago that there might be room for new ideas in this market. Composting animal carcasses, they know, is far from unusual: It’s the method many farms use to dispose of dead livestock, and it’s how some states now contend with roadkill.
Donated farm animals, and some collected roadkill, were what Rooted used as “test subjects” for their composting system, Tschetter said. The system is based at his business partner’s farm, but it’s all indoors, and that helps the company avoid some regulatory hurdles that would come with composting bodies outside.
Pet carcasses are placed in boxlike “pods” with wood chips and other organic matter, Tschetter said. Six to eight weeks later, the cocktail has morphed into rich soil that looks, smells and feels like any other compost, he said.
“We’re literally taking what happens in nature and speeding it up,” he said, referring to the decomposition that would occur if you buried your pooch in the backyard (which many jurisdictions don’t allow). But, he acknowledged, “it’s a newer thing, and it’s going to weird some people out.”
Given the size of the pods, one cubic yard, the company for now can only accept animals weighing as much as 100 pounds, Tschetter said.So far, it has composted mostly dogs and cats, but also a few birds and a snake.
But that might change. Rooted presented at a recent veterinary conference in Washington state last month, and Tschetter said the response from area veterinarians — who will be the primary go-betweens linking pet owners to the composting business — has been “overwhelming.”
People who decide that composting their dead pet is right for them can choose from several options. Let Rooted keep the compost, and it will use it on its farm or on a tree-planting project. Get your composted pet back (alone or, for a lower price, mixed with other pets), and you can use it to nourish a new tree in your yard. If that seems a bit too hands-on, Rooted can send you a houseplant growing in compost created from your pet’s remains.
It would be, Tschetter said, a “living memorial.”