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From early in Jonesy’s life, Ali Rae knew she would want to one day have his remains preserved. So, when her 16-year-old cat passed away in November last year, there wasn’t any question about what to do.
A prosthetic and special effects make-up artist, Rae apprenticed with Michael Westmore, the American make-up artist known for his work on Star Trek. It was during their time working together she learned about the possibility of preservation through Westmore’s large skull and skeleton collection.
Ali Rae had her cats Jonesy and Jinx preserved through a Melbourne taxidermy studio. Credit: Eddie Jim
The Melburnian explains that part of the reason she was drawn to preservation was Jonesy’s unique appearance. Jonesy was a bobcat hybrid – also known as a pixie-bob – weighed nine kilograms and had a short tail with a distinct bone spur.
More than this, however, was the emotional draw of holding on to a piece of Jonesy. When Rae’s father passed away, he left a host of physical belongings, including T-shirts she still wears today. But, as Rae points out, pets are far less likely to leave meaningful physical mementos behind. Jonesy, never having had his own bed or shown much interest in toys, left behind little else than a food bowl and collar.
“Your pet is with you 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but they leave you with nothing,” she says. “This is a way that I can hold on to something that’s left on the earthly plane.”
Rae wanted to keep as much of Jonesy as she could, opting for skull preservation, tailbone preservation, microchip recovery, paw preservation, cremation, ink prints and fur clippings through Melbourne’s Rest in Pieces.
When her five-year-old cat Jinx passed suddenly in March this year, she was also sent to have her skull and paw preserved.
Rae keeps the two cats’ skulls in glass domes next to her bed. “It feels like they’re still here and I can still talk to them, which I do all the time.” She plans to have Jonesey’s tailbone and microchip made into jewellery, so he can always be with her. She adds that having these remains with her has helped with the grieving process. “It’s been hard but extremely therapeutic.”
Still, Rae acknowledges that pet preservation isn’t for everyone. “Death is something that really, most people aren’t comfortable with,” she says.
Today, there is a huge industry attached to pet loss. Bereaved owners can choose from an almost endless number of services and products to commemorate their furry friend – from jewellery, to paw castings, to artwork. Some methods of grieving and commemoration, however, are less understood – something their proponents are hoping to change.
Understanding pet grief
Dr Michael O’Donoghue is the co-founder of Pets and People, Australia’s first dedicated grief hotline for pet owners. Established in 2017 with grief counsellor Penny Carroll, the hotline services all of Australia, connecting callers with independent counsellors.
Pet grief, O’Donoghue says, is unique because there’s often a huge amount of guilt attached to pet loss, as we’re totally responsible for these animals. He explains this guilt often arises after deciding to have a pet euthanised.
Fiona Koenig, a Newcastle-based counsellor who says she never intended to focus on pet-related grief, estimates that 98 per cent of her business comes from pet bereavement. She says that losing a pet can be just as devastating as losing a human friend or family member.
“It’s often the first real loss that we have owned as our own,” says Koenig, explaining that while people often have wide networks of family and friends grieving them when they pass, for animals, the burden of grief will often fall on one person. “It can be really, really intense.”
This experience, termed “disenfranchised grief” in counselling circles, can mean that pet grief is often misunderstood or underplayed. “People will often say, ‘Are you still crying about that dog?’, which can be so detrimental to the processing of our grief,” says Koenig.
A large part of Koenig’s job, then, is to validate a client’s experience by simply listening. “A huge part of that is just telling them, ‘yeah, you’re supposed to be that sad.’”
While some clients may only need one or two sessions, she has others who have been with her for years. Pet grief, she says, can be a gateway to exploring broader issues like depression and anxiety, or drug and alcohol use.
When Sharon Stuckey unexpectedly lost her four-month-old puppy Tilly, she was unsatisfied with the funeral options available. “I could not put her in a fire and I didn’t want to bury her, in case I ever moved home.” While she ended up opting for a burial, the experience led her to research alternative options.
In February 2021, Stuckey quit her job of 30 years as a bank manager and started Paws to Heaven, the third water cremation facility for pets to open in Australia. Popular in the US and Europe, water cremation – otherwise known as aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis – is gentler and more environmentally friendly than traditional cremation. Today, there are aquamation facilities in every state, except the Northern Territory.
The process involves placing an animal in a warm bath composed of 95 per cent water and 5 per cent alkali for eight to 10 hours, depending on its size. Alkali, found in soil, helps accelerate the decomposition process, leaving just bones, the microchip and any other synthetic materials behind. The bones are then ground into a fine powder and returned to the owner as “ashes”.
Stuckey’s facility can take animals up to 65 kilograms. And while dogs and cats are the most common animal, Stuckey has seen fish, chickens, guinea pigs, bearded dragons, snakes and rats come through her doors.
The Animal Memorial Cemetery and Crematorium in Berkshire Park, 2003.Credit: Steven Siewert
Backyard burials, while legal in Australia, can be dangerous for other pets and wildlife as the most common euthanasia drug, pentobarbital, can last in an animal’s body for up to a year. And like Stuckey, owners can be reluctant to bury their pet in their backyard in case they move in the future.
Shane McGraw is the owner of one of Australia’s few pet cemeteries. Located west of Sydney, the cemetery was founded in 1967 and bought by McGraw and his wife in 1999. McGraw estimates the number of pets buried on the grounds are in the thousands and says the cemetery is home to just about every type of animal imaginable, including goldfish and a kangaroo named Susie Meyer.
McGraw says owners of all religions have laid their pets to rest with him – he’s done burials of dogs pointed to Mecca and hosted Buddhist funerals. Over the years, some owners continue to frequent the cemetery with new pets as they pass. One woman has upwards of 30 cats on the one plot – the latest of which he buried a few days ago. In other cases, he says, owners have asked to be buried in the pet cemetery with their beloved companions.
Keeping the memory alive
Natalie Delaney-John started Rest in Pieces 10 years ago as a workshop space to teach taxidermy. Over the years, it has evolved to include other types of animal preservation and, during the pandemic, the Melbourne-based business began offering pet preservation. The service now makes up around 90 per cent of the business.
“It turned out that there was a real desire and need from pet owners to have alternative solutions to the aftercare or preservation of their pet,” she says.
Delaney-John says that most clients, much like Rae, choose preservation as they want to hold on to a more tangible memory of their pets. “They find a lot of comfort in that rather than say, an urn with ashes.”
Rae with her family’s new kitten Worf. Credit: Eddie Jim
The past few years have been a learning curve for Delaney-John, as the business works with more bereaved clients. “You’re not quite prepared for how upset some clients can be,” she says. “But equally, what’s lovely is then when they are reunited with their pet. It’s really nice to see how touching that is for them.”
On the day I speak to Rae, she is emotional, but also hopeful. She has just adopted a new kitten. “The moment I met him, he had a similar energy to Jonesy.”
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