By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
July 11, 2005
Calling himself "naive and trusting," Lauver had assumed his Labrador retriever and white German shepherd - which had suffered from old age and cancer, respectively - had been cremated with the dignity befitting their status as Lauver family members.
Instead, their remains were cooked down to be used as fertilizer or animal feed. The revulsion Lauver felt when he learned their actual fate propelled him on a 13-year crusade to warn consumers of the fraud that he says permeates the $3-billion, largely unregulated industry.
"I was horrified to know that this was the final end for my loyal companions," Lauver, who now owns the Companion Animal Cremation Service in Mechanicsburg, Pa., recounted on his Web site, www.cacsinfo.com. "The current state of the pet cremation and burial industry is ... wrought with misrepresentation of services and exploitation of grieving pet owners."
The latest example of alleged wrongdoing surfaced in March in a remote corner of southwest Virginia, where 150 dog carcasses and remains were found dumped by the side of a rural road. Investigators linked at least some of the remains to the RossAnn Services Crematory in Knoxville, Tenn. A Knox County health department inspector found another two dozen carcasses inside the animal cremation facility, which is closed.
RossAnn owner Mikel Bradley has been charged with 15 counts of theft for allegedly defrauding customers who had paid Bradley for animal cremations. Among those were veterinary clinics as well as individual pet owners.
Kathy Bethea, who was in the latter category, told the Knoxville News Sentinel last month that she paid $125 for the cremation of her dog. She was supposed to receive the ashes, but never did, and is upset that her pet came to the end it did.
"She was not my dog. She was my baby," Bethea told the newspaper.
That is growing sentiment in America, where the definition of family is stretching to include cats, dogs, birds and other so-called "companion animals." The American Veterinary Medicine Association cites polls that show a whopping 86 percent of Americans view their pets as their children, or other close family member.
Accompanying this trend is an explosion of spending on the nation's 65 million dogs, 78 million cats, 17 million birds, 149 million fish, and 18 million assorted small animals like hamsters and ferrets. Last year, Americans spent about $34 billion on their pets. This year, an estimated $36 billion will be shelled out for everything from food, health care and toys to grooming and day care.
One mushrooming spending category is pet "after-life" services and products. Companies offering animal caskets, cremation urns, burial plots and mausoleums are springing up across the country. There are even animal funeral planners for hire, who will handle all the arrangements for the bereaved pet owners.
These services don't come cheap. Depending on the size of the animal, a casket can cost as much as $100, a cremation can run to $350 and more. Burial plots, with grave-tending maintenance and markers can set you back $500. Some animal funeral businesses will prepare the deceased for viewing for as much as $95.
"It has become a very big industry," said Brenda Drown, executive secretary of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Cremations in Ellenburg Depot, N.Y. (www.iaopc.com)
As in any booming field in which there's good money to be made, the pet cremation and cemetery industry has attracted some unscrupulous outfits that give a bad name to the honest proprietors, Drown said.
Lauver said one of the biggest scams is charging customers for what they think is a one-animal-at-a-time cremation, only to burn multiple carcasses together and indiscriminately divvy up the ashes to owners afterwards.
Abetting the bad guys is the absence of government licensing or other oversight in all but a handful of states. "There's no standards, no nothing," Lauver said.
Drown's organization has a code of ethics for its 200 members, but they account for less than half of the estimated 650 to 700 pet funeral firms in the country, she said.
"If they're not a member, we can't regulate them at all," Drown said.
But Lauver said even some association members have embraced deceptive practices. He said much such abuse could be avoided if there was a standardized vocabulary for the services offered by pet crematories.
Now, shady operators and some veterinarians play semantic games by using misleading descriptions of the services they provide to fool customers, he said. A cremation advertised as "private" may imply each pet is burned separately, but that is not necessarily the case, even though the owner is billed a premium rate.
Pet owners should know, Lauver said, that veterinarians almost never handle the cremations themselves, instead contracting with a crematory to handle the task. Given the small percentage of the fee that many vets pay them, crematories have to burn many animals at once to make money, he said.
Lauver says he has designed and defined his services so consumers know exactly what they are getting. He invites owners to inspect the crematory before the procedure and to watch the animal be placed inside it alone. Owners can also be present for the removal of the remains.
For those who prefer not to witness the event, Lauver provides a personal DVD of the cremation process, captured live by two high-resolution video cameras in the room. He also presents the family with a "certified memorial cremation certificate" that lists the time and date the cremation was performed.
Lauver said the pet cremation industry will remain rife with abuse until consumers learn about the scams and how to avoid them.
"As pet owners, we have the right and obligation to know exactly how our pet's cremation or burial will be arranged and performed," Lauver wrote on his Web site.
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