Aquamation: A Dignified, Environmentally Friendly Alternative to Pet Cremation or Burial

California company works with veterinary practices to provide chemical decomposition of pets.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of Veterinary Practice News

A water line and a $70,000 apparatus helped propel Jerry Shevick into the business of dissolving dead animals.

The former TV executive launched his second career in 2013 when he formed Peaceful Pets Aquamation Inc., whose sales pitch to Southern California veterinary customers centers on an environmentally friendly alternative to burial or cremation of their feathered, scaled or furry patients.

Aquamation is a marketing term for what is technically alkaline hydrolysis, the process by which a solution of potassium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide is diluted with water and slowly circulated through a stainless-steel chamber containing the remains of animals as large as a horse.

Twenty hours after the button is pushed at Peaceful Pets’ Newbury Park, Calif., headquarters, a pile of soft bones is ready to be dried, pulverized into a sandlike material and packaged inside a decorative container for eventual return to the veterinary clinic and client.

Alkaline hydrolysis has been used for years in research laboratories to safely dispose of tissue waste and animal subjects and, according to Luke Wilson of Bio-Response Solutions Inc., is an accepted “green” method of rapidly breaking down human remains. His Danville, Ind., company makes biowaste and human decomposition systems and about four years ago developed a line of cost-effective machines for the pet industry.

Today, Bio-Response sells its animal units not only to veterinary hospitals and pet aftercare providers but to neighborhood funeral homes, too. Some mortuaries will gladly take possession of Max and Tinkerbell and reduce their carcasses to a sandy substance for the right price.

“There are a lot of funeral homes that are looking to add a new profit center to their business,” Wilson said. “They’re losing business because cremation rates are going up, so they’re losing that $15,000 to $20,000 funeral.

“A lot of them are getting into doing pets,” Wilson said. “We’ve sold quite a few machines to cemeteries and funeral homes.”

Enter Shevick, whose 30 veterinary customers from Santa Barbara to San Juan Capistrano recommend alkaline hydrolysis through Peaceful Pets. In speeches to veterinarian groups and in one-on-one talks with pet owners, Shevick explains how the chemical process is cleaner than cremation and how the service he provides is more refined.

“On the environmental side, it uses one-twentieth of the energy compared to cremation,” he said. “There are no toxic gaseous emissions. Energy-wise, it’s a huge, huge difference.

“The other part is the dignity side. I’m treating the pet the way I would want my pet to be treated.”

The PET-400 alkaline hydrolysis machine manufactured by Bio-Response Solutions Inc. has a 400-pound capacity and may be sectioned off to accommodate 14 animals.

The PET-400 alkaline hydrolysis machine manufactured by Bio-Response Solutions Inc. has a 400-pound capacity and may be sectioned off to accommodate 14 animals.

A Peaceful Pets employee driving a refrigerated van picks up the deceased, which typically has been frozen after death. Upon arrival, the animal’s paw print is taken and turned into a clay or ink artwork as an owner keepsake.

The animal is placed inside the Bio-Response PET-400, a $70,000 alkaline hydrolysis machine that can accommodate up to 14 pets totaling no more than 400 pounds. The animals are separated into compartments, the chemicals flow in, and then the heating and tissue breakdown begin. When 20 hours are up, the chemicals have been neutralized and drained into the sewer system.

“What comes out is benign—I’ve had it splashed on me,” Shevick said.

Small pets such as birds and hamsters—animals without much bone mass—may be placed in bags to secure the remains.

Peaceful Pets’ turnaround time—from death to delivery of the boxed particles—is no more than two weeks.

The PET-400 and Bio-Response’s other units, including a $160,000 machine that can process 4,000 pounds, operate at atmospheric pressure and 200 degrees Fahrenheit, so the regulatory red tape is relatively easy to navigate when compared with emissions-belching crematories.

For Shevick, winning approval to use his 3-foot-by-7-foot machine meant working with planning and water-control agencies and the fire department, which wanted to know what emergency personnel would encounter if called to Peaceful Pets.

“It was more about perceptions than anything else,” Shevick said, “because you’re dealing with a dead animal and there are perceptions that ‘Oh, my god, it’s dangerous.’

“Once we got the information out, it was OK,” he said.

About 10 percent of Peaceful Pets’ customer base is the walk-in variety who drops off an animal or schedules a pickup.

“Those individuals are the people who spread the word,” Shevick said. “They get to see what we do.”

His veterinarian clientele is made up of two groups: those who sell, arrange and mark up the service and those who simply refer a client to Peaceful Pets.

Shiveck’s prices for veterinary customers range from $90 to $350, depending on the animal’s weight. Free pickup and delivery is offered within a two-hour drive.

Peaceful Pets has reduced a couple of thousand animals to sterile piles of calcium phosphate.

Jerry Shevick's company uses a refrigerated van to pick up dead animals from veterinary hospitals and transport them to Peaceful Pets Aquamation for processing.

Jerry Shevick's company uses a refrigerated van to pick up dead animals from veterinary hospitals and transport them to Peaceful Pets Aquamation for processing.

Shevick, whose TV production work included the History Channel show “Modern Marvels,” marvels over the relationships that he said are forged between Aquamation-touting veterinarians and pet owners.

“This bonds the client to you,” he said. “If you return their pet in a beautiful way, you’ve got a client for life, you’re got a client who is going to spread the word about you because you have done something that nobody else does.”

Clients at Ohana Pet Hospital in Ventura, Calif., are likely to choose traditional cremation, but practice co-founder Janis Shinkawa, DVM, said the number opting for alkaline hydrolysis has grown to 30 percent as “they hear about Aquamation and see what the difference is.”

Ohana, which keeps an Aquamation information binder in the waiting room, is an eco-friendly clinic, with features such as paperless recordkeeping, low-flow toilets and recycled glass countertops.

“That’s why this was very attractive to us,” Dr. Shinkawa said. “That has helped to stimulate questions about Aquamation and what they do.

“People ask questions before it’s time for euthanasia, and by the time they do the euthanasia they already know they want Aquamation as a service.”

The Great Unknown

How many animals are buried at pet cemeteries, cremated or exposed to alkaline hydrolysis in the United States? The answer is a mystery.

Donna Shugart Bethune, executive administrator of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories, declined to guess.

“The pet aftercare industry is not a federally regulated program, so there’s no real numbers or statistics anywhere that dictate the number of pet cremations or burials that are done yearly,” she said.

She called alkaline hydrolysis, or Aquamation, a “very new” service in the pet industry and one that her association officially recognizes. Cremations and burials are association members’ most popular offerings, she said.

“For 70 percent of pets within our industry, cremation is chosen now over burial,” Shugart Bethune said. “There’s definitely a move toward cremation over burial.”

Luke Wilson, president of Bio-Response Solutions Inc., doesn’t track how many times his alkaline hydrolysis machines are used.

“We have some customers that will run their machines twice a week, so they may have 10 animals a week, and then we have other customers who need two machines and run 4,000 pounds a day,” Wilson said.

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