Got pets?

Most likely, you do.

According to the 2007-2008 National Pet Owners Survey, conducted by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), 63 percent of the 113.7 million U.S. households own at least one pet. This represents an all-time high in pet ownership. When considering dogs and cats alone, we’re talking 163.1 million furry friends in residence around the country.

This begs the question of where do all our four-legged companions go once they have — you know — died?

A veterinarian is the common response.  But their specialty is live critters.  Once Fluffy crosses the Rainbow Bridge, the vet is out of the picture.

Enter Steve Johnson, owner and proprietor of Pet Memories, a family owned pet funeral home and cemetery in Tipton, Iowa. Whether you’re looking for personalized cremation options, vessels to preserve pet remains, burial plots, or grief counseling, Pet Memories is there to help.

“My mother thought I was madder than a pet ‘coon to get into the pet cremation business,” said Johnson. “Now all my relatives want to be investors.”

The idea came to Johnson after the sudden passing of his sheepdog, Sunshine, on her fifth birthday. When he was informed his only options for disposal were the city landfill or rendering at the National By-Products plant, these unappealing alternatives set him on a path to establishing Pet Memories.

With start-up costs in the neighborhood of $1 million, the pet cremation business is not a cheap endeavor. Considerations beyond the incineration equipment include the land, necessary permits, fuel, vehicles, advertising and maintenance.

Banks can help with covering these costs, but they tend to be less than enthusiastic about signing off on a pet crematory. Lenders recognize if the venture fails they will be left holding a used pet incinerator – an item that does not enjoy a wide resale market.

Cremation has become the preferred option for pet disposal in this country. The National Humane Society noted that while the primary method for disposal remains placement in city landfills, cremation is increasingly becoming an option for pet owners. This stems from the enhanced role pets are playing in people’s lives and the wish to recognize this role after they have passed.

The APPMA survey shows nearly three out of every 10 owners choose to memorialize their pets in some way. In a time where pets have their own MySpace pages and accrue frequent flyer miles, pet cremation is one way to tap into the over $40 billion pet industry, which is ever more upscale.

Sporting a pair of dusty work boots and green polo with his company’s name modestly displayed, Johnson is worn like his jeans. He’s a compact guy, not small, just well proportioned for his business of moving objects that are often heavy.

He offers a ready smile and displays a playful sense of humor, if slightly on the morbid side, similar to that of a police officer or doctor, helping to shield him from the death and grief he sees each day.

To get the business side of Pet Memories up and running Johnson took a certification course through the International Association of Pet Cemeteries & Crematories, a non-profit group offering seminars to people entering the pet cremation industry. While this informed him about issues concerning documentation, no instruction was provided of how to actually do the physical labor or comfort those who have lost a pet. You simply learn as you go.

“Some of these animals didn’t just die – they’ve been dead a while,” says Johnson. If a horse needs to be lifted into a truck you only get one shot at that, he points out. “Hopefully they’re already stiff…’cause this job can literally go to pieces at any moment.”

After several lean years working 90 to 100-hour weeks, one divorce, and numerous bowls of squirrel soup, Johnson has stabilized Pet Memories.  The business will celebrate its twentieth anniversary in 2009.

Between paying out-of-pocket for a new crematory at his Tipton location, and opening an after-life accessories store in Iowa City, Johnson continues to invest in the success of his business, seeing what began as a fringe idea now come into its own.

When Pet Memories began, he’d pick up from 20 vets a week, now he visits over 20 a day.  Perhaps surprisingly some owners don’t want anyone to know their pets have died or that a cremation service is arriving to retrieve them. Johnson understands this and keeps his operation discrete, respecting owners’ wishes, no matter the peculiarity.

Covering 150 miles of territory in eastern Iowa and Illinois, he and his truck manage the workload the best they can. Johnson drives a white 2006 Nissan pickup, the sixth one of these he’s had.  Burning through two tanks of gas per day, they usually last for 300,000 miles.

With no visible signage of his business displayed, only the three foot high wood enclosure he installed over the bed draws anyone’s attention to the cargo he carries.  Oh, and the odor, that does snap some heads around.

Luckily Johnson handles most of his own maintenance.  The folks at Carousel Motors are not much interested in working on his ride.  Again, the odor…

“You’ve got to be mentally challenged to operate a mess like this,” said Johnson.  “I’ve got a buddy who cleans sewers that will not help me do this.”

There has been some competition for Pet Memories, but it rarely lasts.  Few people will crawl under a house to dig out a dog that’s been dead for a week.  Others neglect the details. Nobody wants their pets’ remains returned to them in a soft drink cup or a Country Crock tub, but these are things Johnson has seen from customers after frequenting other cremation services.

Receptacles aside, people need to feel confident they are receiving only their pets’ cremains. To ensure this Pet Memories assigns each animal an identifier code that stays with that animal throughout the cremation process. Johnson also makes a plaster paw print as a token for owners and includes this along with the animal’s cremains and a certificate that details the pet’s name, cremation date and identifier code.

The price for this service: $101.50 for any dog or cat, plus mileage, and an additional $30 for home pick-up.  Pocket pets, such as mice, fish and birds, are $42. The affordability and option for pet owners to pay respect to their beloved companions has Johnson’s cell phone ringing off the hook these days.

“The pet industry is exploding and I’ll tell you why it isn’t going to stop,” said Johnson.  “If you’re having a bad time, you’re depressed, you get a pet.  If good times come your way and you’re feeling lucky, you get a pet.  Only difference is when you’re depressed you get a cheaper pet.”

* After the lease ran out at his Iowa City store, Johnson opened a second Pet Memories accessories location in Solon, Iowa.

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