Amy Finkel lives in an apartment in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, that does not allow pets. But she does have a groundhog (Chompers), an armadillo (Fleischesser) and a boar (Angel). They are all, however, dead and stuffed — and in the case of the boar, it is just the head.
“I do think I have a tendency to anthropomorphize,” Ms. Finkel said. “But I’m not sure they’re really pets.”
For the last four years, Ms. Finkel, who is 35 and teaches documentary video at Parsons School of Design, has been studying what animal lovers do with the bodies of their deceased dependents. She has a passing interest in burial and cremation. But her passion runs to the more unusual extremes of pet remembrance, things like mummification and cloning. Ms. Finkel is currently working on a documentary on the subject, called “Furever,” that is sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts.
The project began four years ago, when Ms. Finkel read a newspaper article about a business in Loudon, Pa., Mac’s Taxidermy and Freeze-Dry whose services included freeze-drying and preserving deceased pets. She was fascinated, and she soon packed her camera for a 10-day shoot about animal freeze-drying.
Ms. Finkel’s earliest experiences with death came when her own pets — a passel of dogs, birds and rats she grew up with in Seattle in the 1980s — began to die. Her “atheist hippy” parents, she said, felt that pet funerals were too precious. So, when the corpses were flushed, buried or tossed unceremoniously, Ms. Finkel said: “I wasn’t told that we were going to be reunited in heaven. There was no conversation about soul and what that means. It was just like, ‘Your pet’s gone.’ And I had a really hard time letting go.”
Ms. Finkel was not the first journalist to make her way to Mac’s Taxidermy, according to Mike McCullogh, the store’s owner. But she was different. “She wasn’t looking for the crazy comment, or for me to go dancing around with ears sticking out of my head,” Mr. McCullough said. “She wanted to know about the feeling side. Yes, it’s a crazy thing, but she’s not interested in sensationalism. She’s open minded about this, and I am, too.”
Over the years, the bespectacled Jewish Brooklynite and the Harley-riding, ponytailed taxidermist have formed a close friendship. They have skinned goats together. She created his Web site; he gave her the creatures that now adorn her home.
She describes him as one of the most sensitive people she has ever met. Indeed, the process of stuffing a beloved pet tends to demand more delicacy than, for instance, mounting a deer head or posing a bear. Hunters walk into his shop boasting; pet owners arrive in tears.
While the larger game animals are typically skinned and stretched over a mold, pets are generally gutted, treated with chemicals and dried. The resulting models are cold and hard to the touch, but they look quite realistic. Some owners sleep with their dried pets. Prices start at about $1,000 for a small dog.
“People are just just doing what offers them comfort,” Ms. Finkel said. “A lot of Mike’s customers feel they’ve cheated death in some way.”
Mr. McCullogh estimates that about one-fifth of his customers seeking to freeze-dry their pets are from New York City. It is not uncommon to see him opening his door to women from the Upper East Side in limousines, or cross-dressing residents from the East Village mourning dead cats. “In the city, burial isn’t usually an easy option,” he said, “and some people don’t feel comfortable with cremation.”
The requests for freeze-drying can get strange: Someone wanted the ears of a Dalmatian to be preserved; another brought an amputated dog leg. (The rest of the animal was still alive.) In a trailer from Ms. Finkel’s film, which she posted on the fund-raising site Kickstarter, Mr. McCullough explains that he had a client who threatened to sue because her freeze-dried pet did not have the same “life in his eyes” that he had when he was alive. “How do you explain to someone that their animal is dead?” Mr. McCullough said in the film clip. “They’re not going to be alive. This isn’t a magic trick.”
For her documentary, which she is still shooting and trying to finance, Ms. Finkel is also considering capturing other post-death pet options, including the budding world of animal cloning and a technology that can turn animals’ ashes into diamonds.
She was recently packing for a trip to visit Summum, a group in Utah that mummifies pets. Some subjects are close to home — her brother has several tattoos that were done with ink mixed with his pit bull’s remains.
She has had numerous conversations with people who have dug clandestine pet graves in city parks, where burials are illegal. But not everyone she meets understands her feelings about the subject of dead pets.
“A friend-of-a-friend contacted me and asked if I could help her get a freeze-dried pet for a play prop,” Ms. Finkel said. “I was like: ‘You don’t understand what I’m doing. This is about loved ones.’ ”
“This is about the human-pet bond,” she added. “And it’s also about mortality. We shy away from discourse on death. It’s uncomfortable and stigmatized, but maybe through talking about pets, we can open up the dialogue.”