A pet lover says a gentle farewell to a pet dog before it is taken away for cremation. Photo: CFP
Shanghai's pet lovers have a new service - a pet funeral company that collects and sends your beloved Rover or Felix for cremation when they pass away. The Shanghai Pet Heaven Memorial Center, the first specialist pet funeral company in the city, began business last month. It promises to collect the bodies of pets, to supervise their cremation and bring back the ashes in an ornate urn.
The company can also arrange to have the ashes of Rover or Felix buried underneath a favorite tree, interred in a special grave with a tombstone, or scattered at sea. And the animal will be remembered for all time on the company website's virtual remembrance hall. "We want to promote the idea of dealing with the bodies of pet in a good way," Wang Guorong, the company's chief executive, told the Global Times.
For years the city's grieving pet lovers have had to bury deceased animals in gardens or parks or just chuck them into the garbage. As attitudes changed, pet hospitals and pet care salons became involved - however, although they promised to farewell the animals properly, some just dumped the bodies in the garbage or worse.
Now was the time to introduce more environmentally friendly and dignified ways of fare-welling old friends, Wang said.
Wang, a retired researcher with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said the potential market for the pet funeral business is huge in Shanghai. "Shanghai has at least 1 million pets - 80 percent are dogs or cats. We have estimated that 100,000 pets die every year."
This figure might be optimistic. Zhang Weijian is the director of the city's only animal crematorium and he was quoted recently as suggesting about 60,000 dogs and cats died annually.
Notwithstanding, there are a lot of potential pet corpses to handle. Wang said his company aims to get a 10 percent share of the dead pet market. "Nowadays pets are playing a much more important role in family life. They bring the family joy and pleasure. Many people treat their pets as family members.
"In Western countries, people have many different ways of remembering their pets. But in China, people traditionally have lacked options and vision. As the economy has developed and people are leading a more comfortable life, perceptions change. We believe it's time to help people adopt new attitudes and thus we are promoting our business," Wang said.
To cremate a pet, the company charges between 200 yuan ($32.61) and 700 yuan. Other services cost more. Although the company has only handled three dead pets to date since opening last month, Wang is confident about the future. With so many pet lovers in the city, Wang believes some will surely be looking for a funeral service.
Gu Xichen, a fourth-year student at Donghua University, was the company's third customer. She had looked after her pet rabbit, Milk, for two years before she found her dead one morning. She gave the company 1,000 yuan to take care of Milk - staff collected the dead animal, took it to the crematorium and collected the ashes which have gone into a container in a pot plant at her home.
"Milk was the first pet I looked after on my own. I spent many happy days with her. Although she was a little naughty, she made the apartment I rent much more like a home. Whenever I came back home after class or work, she welcomed and comforted me," said Gu who comes from Tianjin.
After the rabbit died, Gu searched the Internet trying to find out how to deal with the body. "A friend suggested I bury her in the community garden or in a park. But I loved her so much that I felt it would be cruel to dump her casually and leave her lying somewhere all alone."
Gu discovered there was an animal crematorium. "But it was a long way away and my friend didn't want to go there with me. Also, I felt it would be a little scary to go to a place where hordes of animal bodies were being burned." In the end, she asked the Pet Heaven company to look after her pet even though it would only have cost her 300 yuan had she taken the body to the crematorium herself.
"I picked up a pot plant for the ashes so that Milk can still be with me in a way. It was a good way of spending the hongbao (red envelope) gift money I had been given at the Chinese New Year," Gu said. Many of her friends said they will now also use the company when their pets die.
Most city pet owners have no idea there is an animal crematorium in Shanghai. It opened in 2002 in suburban Fengxian district. It costs 5 yuan for a pet to be cremated along with other dead animals but if pet lovers want their animals cremated individually they can pay between 300 and 500 yuan and they can collect the ashes.
Cremating a small animal takes about half an hour and it takes about an hour for a large dog. Because it is largely unknown and remote, the center only handled 8,000 dogs and cats last year - a quarter of these were individual cremations, Zhang said.
Lai Xiaoyu is the chairman of the Shanghai branch of the China Small Animal Protection Association. He said many pet lovers bury the bodies of their pets under trees or in parks where they can visit them frequently. However, owners who just dumped their pets' bodies in garbage or in rivers to avoid problems could be causing serious public health issues.
Many pets die from diseases like parvovirus and canine distemper, and the disease does not die with the pet. Burying an animal can help but only if the body can be buried at least a meter deep which is difficult in many parts of the city. Animals buried near the surface can attract passing dogs and cats who can try to uncover the bodies and can become infected.
"And if people throw dead animals into rivers, this can pollute the water," Lai said. According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 280 diseases that can be transferred between animals and humans.
Apart from the animal crematorium, there is a collection center near the Shanghai South Long-Distance Bus Station where pet lovers can leave the bodies of their dear departed. The bodies are sent on to the crematorium twice a week and it charges the same rate as the crematorium for disposal. Lai would like to see more collection centers around the city to encourage pet owners to make use of the crematorium.
"It's not expensive compared to the services offered by pet salons and pet hospitals but many feel the location is inconvenient. More collection centers would attract more pet owners," Lai said.
Sun Yan is the head of a neighborhood committee in Changning district. In 2011 her committee introduced a campaign promoting better pet care among the residents. Now pet owners in her neighborhood take their dead dogs and cats to pet salons or veterinarian hospitals.
"One woman was spotted trying to bury her dead dog in the gardens. We spoke to her and asked her to dispose of the body properly but later she just threw it in the trash."
Many pet salons and veterinarian hospitals have sensed the business opportunities, but there is a certain amount of distrust about their pledges to dispose of animals correctly. "Many of our residents said they didn't want to handle the bodies by themselves so they asked the hospitals to do this even though they do not actually trust them. It relieves their anxiety a little," Sun said.
A staff member with the Shanghai Animal Health Inspection Institute told the Global Times that registered pet hospitals had to sign agreements with the animal crematorium before they were licensed. The staff member, who declined to be named, said the institute publishes the names of all approved pet hospitals on its website and checks to ensure they follow the set procedures.
Several pet salons as well as a few on-line agents also offer pet funeral services. But Wang is critical of many of these operations. "Some non-registered shops just throw away the bodies and give customers ashes of another animal," he said. His company gives clients a certificate from the crematorium with details of the animal and the time it was processed.
Even so, customer Gu was a little concerned as to whether the ashes she received were the ashes of her rabbit Milk.
Pushing for more collection centers for the city, Lai said that at present many pet owners threw out the corpses of their animals or buried them nearby because it was inconvenient to get to the center and it was costly.
A staff member from a pet hospital in Putuo district told the Global Times that it charged 300 yuan for a cremation with other animals and 600 yuan for an individual cremation for a dog weighing less than 10 kilograms. Another hospital, Petshome in Changning district, charges 200 yuan for an ordinary cremation and 1,200 yuan for an individual service. "There are also hygiene problems if the bodies of these animals are not stored properly," Lai said.
Zhang lives in Putuo district and is a proud dog owner. He told the Global Times that when his pet Teddy died he would want to find a place to bury him near his home. "I can't find the crematorium even with a map. I wouldn't want to waste the time driving there to find it. But I don't trust pet salons. I think it would be the best to bury my dog somewhere I can visit when I miss him."
Zhang said he would consider cremating his pet if there was a more convenient outlet close at hand.
Lai wants the authorities to raise public awareness and set more specific penalties for people who do not dispose of pet corpses properly. In 2011 Shanghai introduced laws covering pet dogs. The laws say that owners or pet shops must send the bodies of dogs to the animal crematorium. Anyone caught failing to do this can be fined between 300 and 3,000 yuan. Anyone who puts the body of a dog in household garbage can be fined between 20 and 200 yuan. However, there are no rules covering other animals.