LAWRENCEVILLE - Pets bring a unique joy and companionship to their owners that's different from friendship or family ties. When that furry little thing dies, its owner deals with both grief and the reality of what to do with its remains.
Georgia law allows outdoor animal burials, as long as it's buried at least three feet deep and more than 100 feet from a water source, according to Georgia's dead animal disposal act. But that practice is impossible for apartment dwellers and for residents living under strict homeowners' association regulations. Owners of large animals, such as horses, often have to rent heavy equipment just to get the carcass below ground.
Nearly unheard of 20 years ago, the business of laying to rest dead pets is a growing field and Gwinnett County now has two such services - Deceased Pet Care near Dacula and Peachtree Pet Crematory in Lawrenceville.
Doyle Shugart, formerly a funeral director with H.M. Patterson and Sons in Chamblee, opened Deceased Pet Care in 1972 as a part-time funeral and cremation service.
"People called him asking for help with their pets," said Keith Shugart, his son and co-owner. "He saw a need and took his business cards around to veterinarians and they referred pet owners to him."
Shugart ran the business from his Duluth home for several years before opening a public location in Chamblee. Today, Deceased Pet Care cremates about 800 animals per month at its four crematoriums, according to Juliann Brace, funeral director. Its two cemeteries include the 10-acre Oak Rest Pet Gardens near Dacula that gives free services to police dogs.
"It is not unusual for us to have a service and have 30 or 40 people in attendance," Shugart said.
Marilyn Ward of Lawrenceville was faced with a dilemma in late April when her beloved 12-year-old Daddy Cat passed away from liver cancer.
"We don't know that we will always be at that house, and it was gut wrenching to think of burying him and then moving away and leaving him there," she said.
She called Peachtree Pet Crematory, a division of Tom M. Wages Funeral Services, to care for Daddy Cat's remains. Wages' funeral directors have presided over countless funerals since opening in 1949 and had just opened the pet crematorium.
"It was a natural progression from human cremation," said Jeremy Watkins, cremation operations manager. "Our first call was for a pot-bellied pig."
The animal and human crematoriums are housed in separate buildings, and each pet is cremated alone, Watkins said. Pet owners can chose from a selection of caskets and urns, including biodegradable ones and those that match the dog or cat's breed.
"People care for their pets like any other member of the family," Watkins said. "We cremated a man's 15th ferret recently. He had a ferret mausoleum on his property."
Wages himself started the pet funeral business when he was a little boy.
"He had a pet cemetery and he buried animals there and held funerals for them," said Valerie Wages, his daughter and co-owner. "He did pet funerals for people for as long as I can remember - he'd put it in a baby casket. He held one in a man's store in downtown Lawrenceville."
Both Shugart and Watkins said they've had many requests from people wanting to be buried with their pets or its cremated remains. A section in Oak Rest Pet Gardens allows owners to be buried next to their pets, Shugart said.
"I think people are more in tune with souls now than they ever were before," Ward said. "My brother-in-law was buried with his dog's ashes."