taxidermy bulldog

This bulldog was preserved by Anthony Eddy Wildlife Studio.

A friend of mine just lost her beloved boxer to cancer. Watching her adjust to life without her best buddy is a painful reminder that someday I will have to do the same with my own dog, Lulu. Saying goodbye to a pet can be heartbreaking.

But some pet owners simply cannot bear to say goodbye, opting instead to preserve dogs, cats — even lizards and rabbits — through a process that involves freeze-drying animals in lifelike poses. If you’re curious about how this works, there’s a reality show called “American Stuffers” on the Discovery Channel that explores pet preservation in graphic detail. While this time-consuming and expensive option isn’t for everyone, some consider it the only way to honor their pets. (If you're wondering, this process isn't simply pet taxidermy. Preservation is freeze-drying, which is much more expensive than taxidermy but leads to more realistic results, as you can see from the photo above.)

“Some animals are just so special to you,” said a South Carolina pet owner named Haylee, who wanted to have her cat preserved. “He’s been with me for 11 years. That’s a long time, so I said this is the least I can do for him.” (Haylee did not want to share her last name for this story.)

white and orange cat by scratching post'I just want him back home'

Standing inside a South Carolina animal shelter one Halloween, Haylee instantly fell for the fluffy white feline with orange patches, naming him LA in honor of a potentially life-changing move that never came to be. For the next decade, he served as a constant companion, helping Haylee cope with broken relationships, moves and the occasional job change. When an injury to his paw worsened to the point that LA’s leg required amputation, Haylee prepared for the worst. Instead, LA bounced back the minute he got home.

“He ran around the house, still playing and wanting to jump up on things,” she said. “He was healthy and I was so happy for him.”

But that joy was short-lived. LA died of lung cancer a few months later, leaving Haylee wracked with guilt. She considered cremation and even selected an urn from a local company called Good Shepherd. While scanning the company’s website, Haylee saw information about pet preservation and realized it was a way to keep LA in her heart and her home. (That's LA above, before he succumbed to lung cancer.)

“I love him,” she said. “I just want him back home.”

taxidermy cat sleepingIt’s a slow, painstaking process

In a nondescript building on Main Street in Slater, Mo., Lessie Calvert spends much of her day speaking to grieving pet owners who call from as far away as Israel or Japan. As manager of Anthony Eddy Wildlife Studio, she has seen the 30-year-old business grow to accommodate a steady stream of pet owners.

Calvert begins by walking pet owners through the slow, painstaking preservation process. Freeze-drying removes moisture, much like a food dehydrator. Before pets enter the drying machines, Eddy’s team performs the grisly task of removing organs and as much fat as possible. Calvert said it takes about nine hours to prepare a 10-pound cat for the drying machine.

“You can’t just pose [pets] and put them in the machine; the fat content will ruin it,” she said. “It’s a lengthy procedure.”

That applies to the drying process as well. The larger the pet, the longer it takes. Freeze-drying a Chihuahua takes about five months, while a 50-pound dog can take 10 months to a year. LA passed away last April, and Haylee expects a yearlong wait for her furry companion. At one point, curiosity got the best of her and she requested a photo update from Good Shepherd.

“I’ll never forget that day,” she said. “I was terrified to open that email to see the picture.”

As soon as Haylee saw LA, she shut down her laptop.

“It was just too much,” she said. “But I just needed to see him. … I wanted to make to make sure that it was [LA] because I’m spending all this money on him. I wanted to make sure that was my cat.”

taxidermy white cat with green eyesIt’s an expensive option

Haylee is paying more than $1,200 to have LA preserved at Good Shepherd, which charges $995 for pets that weigh 10 pounds or less and $70 for each additional pound. While LA will be posed in a sleeping position, owners pay more for poses such as a raised head, which costs $340. At Anthony Eddy’s Missouri wildlife studio, preserving pets 10 pounds or less costs $850, and the rate increases by $40 for each additional pound. For example, the preservation of a 177-pound Alaskan Malamute cost its owner $7,530. Calvert said the company also has handled celebrity pets and a few show cats.

“So many people are hurting so bad, and when I lost my dog, I was heartbroken,” she said. “We’re providing a service to people. It took me five years to look at a dog without crying.”

As days turned into weeks and weeks turned into months, Haylee found it easier to look at that picture of her favorite cat without getting upset. Friends and family who don’t have pets simply cannot understand her decision to preserve LA, but Haylee considers it a small way to repay her friend.

— Morieka V. Johnson

Join the conversation with Morieka on Twitter @SoulPup or visit her website, Soulpup.com for more pet info.

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Photo credits: Haylee's cat LA, before he succumbed to lung cancer; Anthony Eddy Wildlife Studio preserved the gray tabby in a sleeping position, while the white cat has its head raised.