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Environment

This Farm Wants to Compost Your Dead Pets

If you’re wondering, this is definitely not what happened to your childhood dog.

by Sarah Berman
Oct 4 2017, 9:57pm

Photo via Flickr user Becky Stern

If you ever asked what happened to your childhood pet, chances are you did not get a straight answer. Partially that's because cats and dogs are too pure for this world, and if I had anything to do with it, they'd all live forever.

But there's another reason your parents fed you some "she went to a nice farm" bullshit. Most of us don't know or ask what happens to dead pets. Vets are usually the ones who take care of the dirty work (in cities and suburbs, anyway), and they aren't generally forthcoming about their pet-focused crematorium of choice.

That's where Paul Tschetter wants to change things. He and a partner just launched a start-up that wants to compost pets at their Washington state farm, and return soil to owners after six-to-eight weeks.

Tschetter announced the Rooted Pet project at a veterinary conference in Tacoma last weekend. Because I've written about the environmental draw of composting dead people before, Paul reached out and we chatted about the laws, rituals, and gross mishaps surrounding doggy death.

VICE: What happens to most pets when they die? Let's assume I think childhood pets live happily on a farm forever.
Paul Tschetter: The standard practice in the US is people go to their veterinarian. They trust the vet with their pet's health during life, and when the end is near, they go to the vet for after care. I don't have the exact source, but 70 to 80 percent of pets in the US are cremated, and vets typically use a company that specializes in pet cremation. The crematory will handle contracts with the vets, as people typically don't want to be super hands-on.

For the most part burial still an option, though many urban and suburban areas will have ordinances against that. Out in the country it's more accessible, you'll have a different percentage breakdown out in the rural areas.

How is composting different from burying Fluffy under a tree in your parents' yard?
There are some challenges when it comes to burial in cities—most don't do it correctly or at the right depth and, sorry to be graphic, but it's very common for pets to be dug up by another animal. There's that issue, and then from an environmental perspective, if a body is decomposing and if you're not heating to the appropriate temperature to neutralize or stabilize the organics, disease could get into the water or waste system. That's unlikely but possible. Especially in a little backyard in a suburban neighbourhood.

What's the carbon footprint of a cremated pet?
I don't have the data in front of me—Urban Death Project will have those stats—but it's a pretty massive amount. A crematory oven heats up to between 2,000 and 2,400 degrees, and it takes quite a while to break down just one animal. That's part of the reason we got into this. We come from the waste management industry, and we're familiar with the market and demand for greener solutions. We also see a lot of the meaning and ritual around death has been stripped out. Cremation is pretty sterile and not very meaningful way to say goodbye. We're also trying to put meaning back into the process, literally take the elements of life and put them back into the soil.

When I looked into composting humans a few years back , I found there were a lot of laws around handling dead bodies. I imagine there's less red tape with pets?
There's definitely less. I should say there are a lot of rules around composting, and lot of rules around human mortalities, but what we're doing is a bit uncharted. Mostly we fall under commercial composting. We're doing what's been happening for many years on livestock farms. When animals die, there's some standard practices around mortality composting.

Is anyone else doing this sort of thing for city pets?
Not that we've seen. The only thing I came across in three years is a gal on the east coast who has a farm and does this on a very small scale, just outdoors on her farm. She's doing maybe 25 to 50 animals a year, and I think it's bigger animals, like horses.

Seems like Washington is ground zero for composting loved ones.
Yes, my partner has perspective on this. He's worked all over the US, and certain pockets of the country are just crazy about compost and recycling, while others it's not on the radar. I think it's a coastal phenomenon, even moreso on the west. It's got to be some correlation with the liberal politics. We are the evergreen state!

Interview has been edited for style and clarity.

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