Forget taxidermy. Some grieving pet owners are freeze-drying their pets after they die to — literally — preserve the memory of their beloved furry family members.
While it might sound unusual — to put it mildly — to freeze-dry a pet, the process isn’t as rare as it seems. Search for “freeze-dried pets” online and a handful of businesses across the country pop up offering the preservation service.
For freeze-dry artist Andrea Huntley of Freeze Dry by C & Co. in Newaygo, Michigan, it’s actually a business she never meant to get into. Her mother, Cathy, was a successful wedding florist in Grand Rapids, Mich., who started freeze-drying flowers in the ‘90s to preserve bouquets. “She was such a trailblazer that she decided to self-learn the taxidermy trade, and soon she was using her single freeze dry machine to do work for other taxidermists, mainly turkey heads,” Huntley tells Yahoo Lifestyle.
The request to freeze-dry pets started in 2007. “It was something she wasn’t really fond of doing,” admits Huntley, referring to her mother, “and at the time I wasn’t even in the business.” But when her mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (Cathy passed away in 2018 at age 60), Huntley took over the business, which she says was “a sink or swim moment for me.”
Huntley, who also does taxidermy work for museums, nature centers and universities, has now been running the business for eight years. She purchased three more freeze-dry machines and says her electric bill is sometimes more than $700 a month, but Huntley says she finds the job “rewarding.”
Her clients come from all walks of life, but the one thing they have in common is that they love their pets. That doesn’t mean some clients don’t question how this all looks. “A lot of my clients worry about what others will think,” says Huntley, who studied psychology in college. “Some ask me if I think it is weird. I’ve had to claw my way to this miraculous point in my life where I truly don’t care what others may think of me or what I do. And I advise my clients to try to live the same way.”
What Huntley and other freeze-dry artists, as well as taxidermists, have is a very different relationship with death than most people.
She credits her mother Cathy with making sure death wasn’t a taboo topic in their household, including while she was dying of cancer. “Our society doesn’t deal well with death,” says Huntley, who was born in Alaska and whose family lived off the land for years before moving to Michigan. “We kind of avoid it. We should be giving people the tools to deal with grief and sadness and longing and death.”
Huntley says that growing up in a rural environment you learn that “death is normal and natural,” adding, “The more you understand something, the less frightening it is.”
How the process works
In most cases, the owner has already thought about the possibility of freeze-drying their pet since they need to act fast after a pet has died. Within 24 hours of a pet’s death, the owner needs to wrap their pet in a towel, put it in a large bag, and place it in a freezer. Owners then bring or ship their frozen pet to a place that offers freeze-drying.
“Once I get the pet, we do the pose,” says Huntley — referring to how the animal will be positioned according to the client’s request, which can range from curled up like they’re sleeping or sitting with eyes open — “and then I do my dirty work.”
Internal organs are removed — including the eyes, which can be replaced with custom-matched, realistic-looking glass versions — and the pet is washed and treated with preservatives that also keep away bugs. If the pet had been sick for a while and lost a lot of weight, Huntley will sometimes use fillers — just like a plastic surgeon does for deep wrinkles — and then it’s frozen again.
Next, the pet is placed into a freeze-dryer machine, which has a condenser unit with “intense” vacuum pressure to remove all of the moisture. Pets remain in these machines for four to nine months, on average, to complete the process. The bigger and heavier the pet, the longer it takes.
After the freeze-drying process is done, Chuck Rupert, owner of Second Life Freeze Dry in Springboro, Pa., tells Yahoo Lifestyle there’s little to do in terms of maintenance, except dusting them with a damp cloth occasionally. “Some people put them in a case, but most leave them out in the traditional places they laid or in a bed they had,” says Rupert, who spent 20 years in the oil and gas industry before becoming “intrigued” by freeze-drying and training under one of the top pet freeze-dry experts in the U.S., Mac McCullough.
Rupert adds: “Only real caveat is to not sit them in full sun because hair will fade. Other than that I tell folks if you’re comfortable, they’re comfortable.”
The cost of pet freeze-drying isn’t cheap and is usually based on weight. Huntley says her minimum price for any pet is $700 for the first 5 pounds. Each additional pound is $75.
Freeze-drying vs. taxidermy
There’s a reason why freeze-drying is more appealing than taxidermy when it comes to preserving pets: Your pet looks more similar to how it did when it was alive. “Taxidermy requires you to remove the hide and place it on an appropriate form,” says Rupert, who notes that most taxidermists won’t do pet work. “Dogs and cats come in a million different sizes and shapes vs. deer forms, for instance. While there are a lot of different forms and poses, in general a deer is a deer.”
Rupert has a simple explanation that he uses any time someone asks about choosing to freeze-dry over taxidermy for a pet: “A guy shoots a big deer and drives around showing his buddies, etc. Drops it off at the taxidermist, who puts it on an appropriate-sized form and does a great job. Guy picks up said deer; it’s beautiful and he’s thrilled. If that same guy had lived with that deer for 10 years, he’d pick it up and proclaim, ‘That’s not my deer.’ In the same vein, if a pet owner walked into a room with 10 dogs the same size and breed as theirs, they would easily be able to recognize which one was theirs.”
He adds: “That’s why freeze-drying lends itself to pets. I’m able to capture and keep the character and uniqueness of that individual animal because it’s less invasive.”
Huntley adds that because freeze-drying is less invasive than traditional taxidermy it can be more appealing to pet owners. “It’s very important to them that their pet be as intact as possible,” she says.
And making them look life-like requires great skill. “One has to possess the eye of an artist,” says Huntley.
What it means to pet owners
Rupert says that for people who choose to have their pets freeze-dried, it provides them some comfort. “They get some peace from being able to have them around,” he says.
Huntley, who owns a Himalayan cat named Xerxes, never judges her customers, though she admits that it would make her sad to freeze-dry her own pet. But she says, “I’ll freeze-dry him because it’s what I do. But I don’t think it’s something I’d want to see every day and be reminded that he’s not alive.”
She has spent a lot of time thinking about why people freeze-dry their pets, saying she could talk about it for days and never reach a conclusive answer. “The best I can come up with is because they love them,” she says, “and they don’t want to let go.”
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