The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat: Full Transcript
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.”
[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Pistol Alien” (from Let’s Cool One)]
Hey podcast listeners: you are about to hear a new episode of Freakonomics Radio, called “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.” I think you’ll like it. But before we get to that… maybe you feel like sending us some money? Here’s the thing: we’ve been making this podcast for almost four years – about 150 episodes – and we put it out for free, every week. But it costs quite a bit to make the show — and, this being a public-radio podcast, we’re doing the public-radio thing and asking for your donations so that we can keep it free.
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Thanks a million. And now: “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.”
[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Theme From ‘The Green Scarab’” (from Makin’ It Happen)]
A few months back, we got an email from a fellow named Jon Remkus in Willowbrook, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. He wrote: “Hello, This is kind of a long shot and a bit out of left field, but I was curious to see if there would be any interest in trying to prove that the cremated remains from certain pet crematories are unlikely to be those of a particular pet.” Is there any interest? Hey John, does a kitty cat say meow?
Jon REMKUS: Well I can give you the tour of the grounds…
It turns out that Jon Remkus himself is in the pet cremation business, and he also runs the Hinsdale Animal Cemetery. He took us on a tour.
J. REMKUS: What you’re looking at is the oldest part of the cemetery, directly in front of us. We don’t have any famous dogs in particular, but a whole lot of love out there.
The cemetery is a family business. Along with Jon, there’s his brother…
David REMKUS: I’m David Remkus…
Bill REMKUS: …my name is Bill Remkus…
And his mom…
Nancy REMKUS: My name is Nancy Remkus…
J. REMKUS: So I’ll take you around a couple of my favorite epitaphs. There’s a Yoda here…
The cemetery has been in the family since 1950, when Jon Remkus’s grandparents bought it.
J. REMKUS: The epitaph says ‘May the force be with you, sweet pup. 1978-2000.’ Although, my inner nerd’s gonna show. Empire Strikes Back didn’t come out until 1980, and that’s when Yoda made his debut, and this pet was born in 1978, so maybe I’m nerding out, but I’d like to know the story behind that.
There are thousands of cats and dogs buried here, along with bunny rabbits, birds, hamsters, horses, a 3-foot shark — and about 30 human beings, too.
J. REMKUS: This is a place where people come to rest alongside their pets. And Rosindo is one example. His stone says, ‘We will never forget you. You will always be in our thoughts and in our hearts. We love you.’
Some of the animals buried here are in corpse form, and some have been cremated. Which brings us back to the reason that Jon Remkus wrote to us. He thinks there is something fishy about the pet cremation industry. He thinks that some of his competitors are not playing by the rules. Now, a few years ago Remkus hired a private investigator to try to prove it. So you might call him a motivated whistleblower – motivated, that is, by casting guilt on his rivals, and in the process of making his own business look better. Maybe so, but does that necessarily mean that Jon Remkus is wrong?
* * *
[MUSIC: Heavy G and The Boogaloo Communicators, “Wee-Lee”]
So Jon Remkus, who runs a pet crematory outside of Chicago, wrote to say that he suspects his competitors of fraud, and that he hired a P.I. to try to prove it. Producer Katherine Wells takes it from here.
Katherine WELLS: I met up with Jon Remkus and his father, Bill, to talk about this investigation. Here’s Bill.
B. REMKUS: Cremation is mystery to most people. And with it being a mystery of how cremation should be performed or what it’s all about, it’s easy to take advantage of people because they don’t understand it.
[MUSIC: Greg Ruby Quartet, “Zephyr” (from Look Both Ways)]
WELLS: To understand the investigation, you need to understand how cremation works. Say you’ve just had your dog put down. You are at the vet with the body. You’re probably distraught. The vet will ask you want you want to do: do you want to take him home? She might suggest that you cremate the pet. And she might offer to take care of the process for you. If you don’t want the ashes back, the vet will send off the dog for something called a group cremation, where a bunch of pets are cremated together.
If you do want the ashes back though, she’ll suggest you do a private cremation. Jon Remkus showed us how this process works.
J. REMKUS: When we do a private cremation, it’s just one pet at a time, and the client receives back all of that pet’s cremated remains and only that pet’s cremated remains.
WELLS: The cremation machine is a big silver metal block with a little door in front.
J. REMKUS: And when I press the button for the door to come up, the door goes up, and then we see that there’s a single pet inside the cremation chamber floor, and then there’s a jet of fire that comes down from the ceiling and makes contact with those cremated remains in order for the cremation process to complete.
WELLS: When the burn is finished, they’ll sweep out the remains, which are mostly bone…grind them up, and pour them in an urn.
J. REMKUS: And that is about it.
WELLS: Pretty simple, right? If you don’t want the ashes back, go with the group cremation. If you do, go with private. Well, it’s
not actually that simple because there is yet another option, you might be offered, it’s an in-between, not-quite-private option. How it’s done is several animals are cremated together in one machine, but they’re separated with bricks or on metal trays. So theoretically, you should still get most of your pet’s ashes back.
This third option is usually called “segregated” or “partitioned,” cremation, but the terms can get confusing: you might also hear it called “semi-private,” or even “individual.” It is usually cheaper than a totally private cremation, but there’s a problem. What “private” or “individual” or “partitioned” cremation really means depends on who you’re talking to. And the lower the prices go, the murkier the definitions get. So when Jon Remkus saw that some of his competitors were offering very low prices for some of these services, he got suspicious.
J. REMKUS: Generally just the ridiculousness kept increasing in the market. It got sillier and sillier how low the prices would go.
[MUSIC: Stephen Flinn, “Jewels In My Teeth” (from Architect of Adversity)]
WELLS: Remkus charges about $180 for a private cremation of a small animal. But what he started to see was that his competitors were offering much lower prices, and doing things like giving away free TVs to vets who funnelled business to them. Remkus says he just couldn’t imagine how his competitors could be making a profit off of these services at those prices. So he decided to do something about it. He hired a private investigator and they devised an experiment:
J. REMKUS: So what we did is we came up with a tracking compound that would allow us to chemically test for its presence after the cremation process is through.
WELLS: Remkus had on hand eight dead stray cats that had been passed along to him for disposal. This gets a little gory, but what he did is he had a vet implant each dead animal with this tracking material — titanium dioxide. Now, cremation machines get very, very hot. Like 1,600 degrees hot. But titanium dioxide’s melting point is way above that, it is 3,350 degrees Fahrenheit, so this material would make it through the the burn and still show up in the ashes afterwards.
So after this material was implanted, the private investigator took the dead animals to several of the competitors with the very low prices. He asked each one of them to do a “partitioned” cremation, the in between, sort of private, option.
J. REMKUS: We got the ashes back and you know they all look like cremated remains. And in fact they were cremated remains upon having them analyzed.
WELLS: So far, so good. But when a lab analyzed the cremains for the tracking material, three of the eight samples weren’t right.
J. REMKUS: We discovered that there was such an insignificant amount of the tracking material in a number of these samples that at best you were given a scoop of a larger group cremation.
[MUSIC: Airbus, “Deep In A Dream” (from Ghosts)]
WELLS: When you send in your cat to be cremated, how do you know that the scoops you get back are full of Fluffy? What if they were Max the dog? Or a gerbil, or a rat? Or all of those mixed together and topped off with some parakeet? The truth is, short of doing a test like this, there’s really no way for you to tell how any cremation happens, unless you go and watch it yourself. Now, Jon Remkus felt like the tracking material experiment was pretty solid proof that his competitors were not doing cremation in the way they advertised. But he wanted to be really sure. So he did a second test.
J. REMKUS: So what we did is we had the investigators procure two stuffed animal cats. And…
WELLS: Where do you get a stuffed animal cat by the way?
J. REMKUS: There was a place online that had realistic stuffed animal cats that were actually manufactured using rabbit fur.
WELLS: They were so soft that you couldn’t tell the difference.
J. REMKUS: And what we had the investigators do is stuff them with some hamburger meat and some Crisco just to approximate the weight and feel of a deceased cat and then had them freeze the stuffed cat up.
WELLS: That last part may sound strange, but it’s not that unusual for people to freeze an animal until they can take it for cremation. So off these frozen fake cats went for another partitioned cremation. Now, it’s important to reinforce here that bone is really the only part of the body that survives the heat of cremation. Everything else burns away. So with these fake boneless cats, there would be almost nothing left.
J. REMKUS: So we sent two through directly to this particular competitor. And in both instances we got back bone ash in the amount of what you would expect for a pet of that size.
WELLS: Okay, so you sent the fake cats through, with no bone in them, and you got bone back.
J. REMKUS: Yeah, not just some bone, exactly what you’d expect for a pet of that weight.
WELLS: So what does that suggest? Complete the circle for me.
J. REMKUS: Well that suggests that this company is just taking a scoop of a group cremation and doling it out based on the weight of the animal that comes in. So to simplify it, a big Labrador might be three scoops, a cat might be one scoop. And that’s what we believe was happening in these instances.
[MUSIC: Blindfold, “Rotation”]
WELLS: Why would a crematory do this? Well, it saves time, labor, energy, money — and it means more profit. But I think it’s worth pointing out that I can also imagine a much less nefarious way for this to happen. Cremation is a turbulent process – – it’s a huge fire, after all — and it’s possible that these companies did in fact separate out all of the bodies, but in the process of burning, the remains become mixed. But in the end it doesn’t really matter whether the mixup is intentional or not, because the bottom line is that the pet owner is not getting back what they think they’re getting back: which is only their animal.
After Jon Remkus did his experiment, he brought his findings to the Attorney General of Illinois’s Consumer Protection Division. The division reviewed the procedures of one of the competitors, a company called All Paws. No further action was taken. The Remkuses are still convinced that fraud is out there. Here’s Jon and Bill again.
J. REMKUS: It made me more sad than anything that pet owners are being taken advantage of and they don’t even know it.
B. REMKUS: When you choose cremation services on price, chances are you’re going to get burned. Ninety times out of one hundred, you’re going to get burned.
DUBNER: Now, as we noted earlier, for Jon Remkus to claim that his competitors are being dishonest, well, he may not be the most unbiased source in the world. We contacted several of these other crematories. Most of them didn’t return our calls or emails. But one did. He didn’t want to go on tape, but here’s what he told us. He said, “I run an honest business, we’ve been doing this for 40 years. We don’t mix things up.” And he said, “Sure, I’ve heard of that happening, but not here.”
And he said, “I’m in the business of helping grieving pet owners, not of pointing fingers or calling my competitors names on the radio, and this story makes Remkus look bad for doing that.” And he said, “I’m not thrilled to hear that this guy brought a cat laced with chemicals to us, and then we burned those chemicals. What if they were combustible? What if somebody got hurt?” So, we don’t have enough information to say who’s right here. But look, people do cheat, just about every day in just about every realm of life. Should we assume that pet cremation would somehow be exempt?
Of course not. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find any worthwhile data that would help us definitively answer this question. For now the only “proof” is a homemade investigation, of the hamburger and Crisco variety.
[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Funky Zapatos”]
DUBNER: So, coming up on Freakonomics Radio: we run our own experiment, to see what happens when you send a crematory a cat that has no bones. And, if phony cremation happens with pets, does it happen with people too?
LEMASTERS: One of the cases on the human side that really made a change on how everybody handled the human side of cremation was in Noble, Georgia.
* * *
[MUSIC: Vunt Foom, “Beatcutter” (from Sub Valve Release)]
DUBNER: According to government statistics, there are well over 200 million pets in America, not counting pet fish. (Why government statistics don’t include fish – we don’t know; maybe that’s an episode for another day.) Now, we spend a lot of money on these pets – about $61 billion a year, which is roughly the size of the U.S. wedding industry. And just wait ‘til pets start getting married! Over the past 20 years, our pet spending has tripled. One area that is growing very, very fast is pet “aftercare.”
The International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories tells us that ten years ago, only a handful of places specialized in pet aftercare. Today, there are more than 700 pet funeral homes, crematories and cemeteries. Here’s producer Katherine Wells again.
[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Into Somethin’” (from Makin’ It Happen)]
WELLS: If you want to find out about the pet cremation industry, and the people in it, a good place to start is the annual conference of the ICCFA. That’s the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association. This year’s annual conference was held in Tampa, in the springtime. The ICCFA is mostly an organization for funeral directors for humans, but every year, more and more pet funeral professionals come. Coleen Ellis is one of them.
ELLIS: I’m a fur mama, so all of my children have fur coats.
WELLS: Ellis is the head of the Coleen Ellis, and that means she loves pets. She’s not alone.
ELLIS: First of all 62 percent of people own a pet. Okay? Eighty-three percent of the 62 percent refer to themselves as mommy and daddy. Baby boomers have empty-nested and the pets are the new kids. And they want to make sure that when they have those new kids they’re giving them every spoiling right that they would give to any child. The younger folks, the X and the Y’s right now, they are maybe holding off on having kids so they’re test driving with a puppy and a kitty.
They’re finding the treats that are organic. They’re finding the little doggie spas that they can do facials at and they can have fun time. They’re finding the doggie daycares where they can go socialize them and they can be fun and good pet parents because they’re taking their child over to play with other children, okay…So the trend of life is going to push the trend of death. And when you honor death you honor life.
WELLS: And that means that no expense is spared when pets die, too. Ellis points to a necklace she’s wearing — it’s a big silver heart with little paw prints on it.
ELLIS: I have an urn on around my neck right now. I don’t have cremains in here, what I have is have is the hair and the fur and a little whisker of all the living and deceased animals that I’ve had in my life. And so for me, this is a way that I can honor them. I can keep them with me.
WELLS: Urn necklaces seem to be pretty popular — Ellis wasn’t actually the only person wearing one at the conference. Hers even opened up and had a USB port inside, where she keeps videos of all of her pets. She sent them to me.
ELLIS: Everybody sit, Rudy, sit. Crisco, sit. That’s good. Look at my babies! Oh, they are so good! Do you want a treat?
[MUSIC: The Mackrosoft, “Angiogenesis” (from Upgrade)]
WELLS: So obviously, Ellis is really proud of her animals. And she knows that pet owners like her would be really devastated to find out that the ashes they got back didn’t belong to their animals. And a question that came up at the conference was this: would a pet owner ever be so devastated that they’d sue?
LEMASTERS: Pets are a big market, and that means there’s liability.
WELLS: This is Poul Lemasters. He was at the ICCFA conference, too. He used to be a funeral director and embalmer, but today he works with human and pet funeral homes on legal issues.
LEMASTERS: I always tell people, you can’t expect to make money off of something and not create a liability at the same time. It just doesn’t work that way.
[MUSIC: In The Nursery, “Partnership” (from Hindle Wakes)]
WELLS: Lately, Lemasters has been thinking a lot about the legal implications of cremation fraud. And he told me there’s actually a precedent for this pet mess in the human cremation business. It happened in 2002 in the town of Noble, Georgia.
NEWSREEL: We discovered one concrete vault stuffed, or packed, with more human remains.
NEWSREEL: A large garage-type building was found today filled to the top with decomposing human remains. So far, 92 sets of remains have been recovered and some of these remains date back decades.
NEWSREEL: We have found some mummified bodies…
LEMASTERS: One of the cases on the human side that really made a change on how everybody handled the human side of cremation was in Noble, Georgia.
WELLS: The Tri-State Crematory in Noble had been receiving bodies from funeral homes for years, but an investigation uncovered something awful: the owner had been dumping corpses in the woods and giving other materials, like cement dust, back to the families. In total, more than 300 bodies that were supposed to have been cremated were found.
LEMASTERS: So they ended up going after the crematory and also after the funeral homes that were using them. Many things were discovered. They included that a lot of the funeral homes were using this crematory purely because of their pr
ice. Because they happened to be the cheapest. They also found out that nobody was inspecting. Nobody was even going to look.
WELLS: The case set an important legal precedent. The guy who ran the crematory was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and both he and the funeral homes that used him were fined millions of dollars. After this scandal, states tightened regulations of the human cremation industry. Now there are all sorts of certifications and licenses and permits, emissions standards and specific requirements for proper procedures to identify and keep track of remains. But pet crematories don’t have nearly the same amount of oversight.
It varies from state to state, and even from county to county, but in most places, all you need to do to open a pet crematory is fill out an application for a license and get a permit from the EPA. Poul Lemasters thinks the reason there might be less oversight of the pet cremation industry is because there hasn’t really been a high-profile pet cremation lawsuit in the U.S. But what if there was one?
JUDGE: All rise! The circuit court of Hillsborough County, Judge Jeremiah Nevill presiding, is now in session. Please be seated and come to order.
WELLS: At the ICCFA conference this year, Lemasters staged a big mock trial. It was in a hotel ballroom, they set out folding tables in the shape of a courtroom and about 75 people showed up to watch. Lemasters wanted to know what would happen if a case of cremation fraud ever came to trial. How would a jury react? What kind of price would they put on a pet? And who would have to pay it?
JUDGE: Alright, let’s begin. Plaintiff’s counsel, with your opening statement.
LEMASTERS: Thank you your honor. May it please the court, the actions of the defendants, what you’ll hear today, are horrific and unimaginable.
WELLS: That’s Lemasters again, playing the role of the prosecuting attorney. He gives his opening statement and calls the first witness up to the stand.
JUDGE: Do you solemnly affirm that the testimony you may give in this matter will be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
KNAUF: I do.
WELLS: This is Roberta Knauf. She’s a counselor at a pet funeral home in Ohio, and she volunteered to play the role of plaintiff.
LEMASTERS: Tell us about Molly.
KNAUF: Molly was my best friend. She was a wonderful companion and she was very close to my heart.
[MUSIC: Sonogram, “Certainly Obscured” (from Cubists)]
WELLS: Knauf starts to tell the story of the made-up dog, Molly. She says Molly died from cancer at an old age and was cremated through the vet. Everything seemed fine at first, but a few months after she brought the ashes home, Knauf heard that the crematory owners were being investigated. They had apparently been dumping animals in a field and returning random ashes back to people.
KNAUF: The veterinarian clinic called me, and said there had been an investigation. And they told me it wasn’t Molly’s ashes that I had. And that hurt. And even the police investigation said that they weren’t hers.
WELLS: Knauf was suing not just the crematory, but the vet, too — because the vet had outsourced the cremation to the cheapest company and then stuck Knauf with a hefty upcharge — which, it turns out, is not an uncommon practice. Knauf had no idea.
KNAUF: I don’t have Molly. I’ll never have Molly.
WELLS: At this point, Knauf starts crying — real tears. She told me later that her pain was real, because she knows this actually happens to pet owners. The mock jurors, who had been recruited off of Craigslist, were moved.
JUDGE: On the issue of infliction of emotional distress, what do you find?
JUROR: The defendant Oceanside Crematory we do find liable, and award damages in the amount of $150,000.
JUDGE: On the issue of negligence, what do you find?
JUROR: Oceanside Crematory we do find liable and award a damage of $350,000.
JUDGE: And finally, on the issue of punitive damages, what do you find?
JUROR: Oceanside Crematory we do find liable and award a damage of $3 million in punitive damages against that defendant.
WELLS: This mock jury charged the veterinary clinic with damages, too, for not going out to check on the crematory.
[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Wantu Wazuri” (from Makin’ It Happen)]
WELLS: Lemasters was really excited about this result — excited because it confirmed his hunch that a jury would be willing to punish fraudulent pet crematories. That they wouldn’t dismiss it as just a dog or a cat. Lemasters and I talked about what could happen after the trial was over. He said that if a real jury ever did the same thing, and there was real money involved, it could completely change how the pet cremation industry works.
LEMASTERS: In the court system pets have typically always been considered property. However, over the years, courts have started to recognize that pets are people too and to give them more and more latitude and their owners — parents — more latitude to recover damages.
DUBNER: That was Katherine Wells reporting for us.
Suzie LECHTENBERG: Um, ok, we are here to talk about Stevie, Stevie and Stevie.
Stephen J. DUBNER at WNYC: Did we name them Stevie the cat? They are all called Stevie the cat?
LECHTENBERG: Just Stevie.
And this is Suzie Lechtenberg. She’s the executive producer of Freakonomics Radio.
DUBNER: The cats are named after Levitt or me?
LECHTENBERG: Both of you.
[MUSIC: Spencer Garn, “Pink Champagne Paradise Machine”]
The cats named “Stevie” that she’s talking about – well, we decided to run our own tests at three pet crematories here in New York. We wanted to see what would happen if we did what Jon Remkus told us he did in Illinois – send a fake cat out for cremation. So we bought three fake cats from a store called This Place Is a Zoo. They market the cats as “not very cuddly but great for a display or to replace a missing pet.” We were excited when they arrived – they are very realistic, orange-and-white kitties, curled up asleep, a stiff body covered in real rabbit fur.
We stripped the rabbit fur off of the cats, and stuffed each of them with a few pounds of hamburger meat. Then we put these burger-stuffed rabbit fur cat skins in a grocery bag and froze them for a few days, until we could arrange for the three crematories to pick them up. By this point, they didn’t really look much like cats but apparently they were cat-like enough for the three crematories to take them off our hands. And we, of course, are telling a fib – we’re telling them that what we’re giving them is a real dead cat.
Now, when you get back cremated remains, whether it’s a pet or a human, it’s composed almost entirely of bone ash. So in this case, we’re sending a cat with no bones – so, theoretically, we shouldn’t get back much ash at all. The fur and the hamburger meat should burn off almost entirely. So we sent off these three cats. Suzie and the other producers handled this part; they kept me in the dark; I had no idea what kind of remains if any we got back. A few weeks later, we sat down to talk.
LECHTENBERG: Okay, so, can I ask you first: what do you think happened?
DUBNER: What would I predict happened?
DUBNER: Okay, so we take three cats, we send them into three different pet crematoria….and what do I think happened? Oh, three cats whose bodies are made up of hamburger meat.
LECHTENBERG: Stuffed in rabbit fur.
DUBNER: Stuffed in rabbit fur… I guess what I hope happened is that each of these three institutions called and said, Suzie, I’m sorry to tell you this but something was strange with Stevie, your cat, and he just burnt to hell and there was nothing left. And we’d love to give you the ashes of your beloved Stevie the cat, but we can’t understand why there aren’t any, and instead we’ll give you maybe a nice plush stuffed animal.
LECHTENBERG: Well, why don’t we just see what happened then? Are you ready?
DUBNER: Please don’t be ashes, please don’t be ashes. All right, the fact that there’s something here is not good. I’m going to open it…well, this is promising, I’m getting happier, can I open… I’ve got to rip this open… It’s a plastic bag…
DUBNER: Should I not be happy? Oh no. Oh bummer. I thought it was…oh man. It is. This is somebody else’s dead pet right here. Right?
DUBNER: That is not Stevie.
[MUSIC: Tangria Jazz Group, “Breathe Easy” (from Mebane’s Eleven: Tunes for Two)]
That first box is from a place called Pet Crematory Agency. We paid for a private cremation — $460 – which meant that Stevie the cat should have been alone in the chamber. The second box is from Pet Cremation of New York. Again, a private cremation; this one cost $307.
DUBNER: Ooh, this one is heavy… And right there, the label on…when I open the box says “Private Cremation,” and it appears to be another bag of animal bones that do not belong to Stevie the cat because Stevie the cat had no bones.
This second bag had way more ash in it, maybe three times as much as the first one. Okay, so that was Stevie 1 and Stevie 2. Stevie No. 3 got what’s called an “individual” cremation, meaning he’s supposed to be alone in a pan but that other animals were also in the chamber, in different pans. Now even so, this one cost more than the others — $505.74. It was from a place called Hartsdale Crematory.
DUBNER: Okay, once again, a tea tin, beautiful floral print, it’s kind of small, there’s some paperwork here and more of the same. More kitty remains. I have to say, these look a little bit… this looks, honestly, this looks like beach sand. There look to be chunks of bone or bone fragment and then ashy stuff, which I guess is other bone. Says “Stevie” on there. So, I know this isn’t my Stevie. This might be somebody else’s Stevie.
Okay, so let’s not assume that these crematories are doing something wrong. Maybe something happened in the burn chamber that would explain why we got back all that bone ash from animals that didn’t have any bone. Or maybe the hamburger meat we used had an inordinately large amount of ground bone in it – not likely but, if you read a paper from the Annals of Diagnostic Pathology called “Fast Food Hamburgers: What Are We Really Eating?,” you’ll see that bone and lots of other cow parts can end up in ground chuck. Or maybe not…
Suzie LECHTENBERG: I visited Nick Petraco at his forensics lab at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He teaches chemistry and forensic science there. Petraco used to be a cop. He started his career at the NYPD in 1968. Then he finished his chemistry degree and went on to work in the police lab as a detective. He retired in 1990 and now he runs a forensic science consulting firm. His specialty is trace evidence. He and a colleague, John Reffner, who’s also a professor of forensic science at John Jay, agreed to analyze the cremains for us.
We looked at the ashes under a microscope.
REFFNER: I pulled some chunks out, in the top of the petri dish that you might want to look at. Oh yeah. That’s it.
LECHTENBERG at John Jay College: What do you see?
REFFNER: That’s a beautiful… that’s a piece of bone.
PETRACO: That’s a crystalline structure. Let me take a look, too. This is a little bit of Stevie 1. Looks like bone to me. Bone fragment.
REFFNER: This is not residue from what you sent them.
LECHTENBERG: So that was their initial reaction, looking at the ash under the microscope. But they hadn’t done their full forensic analysis yet. So they couldn’t say for sure that the remains we got back were indeed bone. But before we get to what they found, I learned that Nick Petraco is a dog lover.
LECHTENBERG: He’s had three beagles. Jake, Ralph and Butch.
PETRACO: Butch I got as a puppy from one of my professors here when I was coming to college here. And, uh, he lived for 15 years. He had a good life. I cry about him all the time. But he had a good life. He had a big belly like me. He ate good.
LECHTENBERG: So that’s why it was a little bit agonizing when he saw this:
PETRACO: Hartsdale. This where I sent my Ralph. Hartsdale.
DUBNER: Oh no.
PETRACO: I sent through my vet. I know it was Hartsdale.
DUBNER: This is before he looks at the remains from Hartsdale?
DUBNER: Oh God, I don’t know if I can take hearing this.
LECHTENBERG: Yeah. So, clearly, this guy did not want what’s in the Hartsdale package to end up… he did not want us to get duped.
[MUSIC: The Willie August Project, “Diamonds in the Darkness” (from With You, In A Moment (Live At The Glacier Fringe))]
LECHTENBERG: After I left John Jay, it took Petraco about a week to do a full forensic work up and tell us exactly what was in our cremains. I called to see what he found out.
PETRACO: We found that in each of the three sets of materials from the crematoriums, each set of materials had primarily bone fragments in it. They were burned bone fragments. I verified the elemental composition by finding calcium and phosphorous, which is typically what bone is made out of, calcium phosphate.
LECHTENBERG: How much bone are we talking about?
PETRACO: The vast majority of the material was bone debris.
PETRACO: In each case.
DUBNER: All right, so Suzie, according to these forensic experts, the three bags of pet cremains that we got back were made up almost entirely of bone – which doesn’t seem to make sense, since we sent each of them a boneless cat. In two of the three cases, we paid for a private cremation, so we don’t know where this bone ash came from. And even in the third case, the “individual” cremation, we were still supposed to get back only the remains of our pet.
LECHTENBERG: I think we have to assume that these crematories gave us back a scoop of ashes from some other cremated animal.
DUBNER: Right, because in our case, there shouldn’t have been any cremains, or at least only a tiny bit. But based on what we’ve learned today, I wouldn’t be all that confident if I were to send in a real pet that the remains I get back are definitely from my pet.
LECHTENBERG: I think that’s right. Here’s Nick Petraco again:
PETRACO: Basically they are not doing what they say they do. I don’t know if that’s a crime but it’s certainly not morally right because a lot of these pets are very dear to the people that are paying these fees to have it done properly.
[MUSIC: Tangria Jazz Group, “Ethan’s Song” (from Mebane’s Eleven: Tunes for Two)]
DUBNER: So apparently we got back some ashes from other people’s pets. This may just mean that some crematories don’t do the right thing when they cremate a fake cat. We called the three New York crematories that we tested, asked them for a response. None of them would go on tape. One crematory, Pet Cremation of New York, declined to comment on the record. The second one, Pet Crematory Agency, did send us something in writing. They noted that the form we signed when we gave them Stevie said we were giving them a cat, and that they needed further proof that the Stevie we sent wasn’t a cat.
The third crematory, Hartsdale, also sent us a written statement, 16 pages long. They emphatically denied any allegation that that there was the improper handling of pet remains. They say that Hartsdale “adheres to strictly monitored and enforced procedures and safeguards throughout the cremation process to insure the respectful treatment of pet remains from intake through return.” Hartsdale says the contents of our bag were placed in an individual stainless steel tray, put in the crematory furnace, and upon completion of the cremation process, the cremains “consisting solely of the skeletal remains of “Stevie”, were removed and processed by pulverizing the bones.”
They also included a copy of a form signed by an employee saying that the ashes are Stevie’s ashes and said this employee takes personal responsibility for the cremation. Hartsdale later sent us an addendum to its original statement, saying that active commingling of cremated remains will occur when you perform a cremation with more than one pet in the chamber. They attached a newsletter from the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance supporting this. You can read the full statements from Pet Crematory Agency and Hartsdale on our website: Freakonomics.com.
We’ve also shared our findings with the New York State Attorney General’s office… if we learn that they do conduct an investigation, we’ll be sure to let you know… In the meantime, we wound up with three piles of pet cremains – and even though they’re not from our pets, they probably belonged to someone. So we thought we’d take the ashes outdoors and give them a proper sendoff…
DUBNER: Okay, here we go. So long Stevie, or whoever you are.
[MUSIC: The Diplomats of Solid Sound, “Pistol Alien” (from Let’s Cool One)]
DUBNER: Hey podcast listeners. Hope you enjoyed this episode. I also hope you’ll consider supporting the Freakonomics Radio podcast by going to our website and making a donation. We love giving away this podcast for free but it does cost money to make. Just look at this pet-cremation episode… We sent Katherine Wells to Florida to cover the mock trial at the International Cemetery, Cremation, and Funeral Association conference. That cost a bit more than $1,000. We also did that taping at the pet cemetery outside of Chicago…
Then we had to buy those very realistic fake cats, covered in real rabbit fur. $184.70. Then there was the hamburger meat to stuff the cats, plus some rubber gloves and garbage bags – that’s another $48.98. The pet cremation itself, at three crematories, set us back $1,274.40. But the real costs are what it takes to turn out a weekly podcast and a public-radio show. We have a staff of great producers and engineers on salary – they even get health insurance. We pay for the music we use, so that the artists who make it get paid, at least a little bit. We also need to cover the costs of streaming our podcast.
Now the good news is that a lot of you listen to the podcast – we do more than 3 million downloads a month. But the more downloads, the more we pay in streaming costs. So last year we paid about $36,000. This year, we hope to pay even more! So, long story short: if you’re so inclined, please go to Freakonomics.com and make a donation. Thank you very much – and we’ll talk to you next week.
This is a transcript of the Freakonomics Radio podcast “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat.”