A place to remember Ontario’s beloved pets when they die

July 19, 2013:
Horses, dogs, cats, hamsters, even fish find a place at Uxbridge’s Thistledown Pet Memorial crematorium where grieving GTA families can visit ashes of their departed

The stories of love and loss flow like tears: A young couple who visits the niche of their “sweet, brave little girl” every Saturday; three members of one family who have been reunited in death; 60 police officers giving a hero’s send-off to one of their own who died after being injured on the job.

From horse to hamster, creatures great and small have found a final home at Thistledown Pet Memorial in rural Uxbridge. The facility, set in a 21-hectare “beautiful piece of paradise,” as co-owner Nancy Graham describes it, offers all the services of its counterpart for humans. Not to mention a shoulder for the grief-stricken to cry on.

“Boy, is there ever a need,” says Graham, a former nurse. “Our pets give us so much and people are so heartbroken and devastated when they lose them. Here, we let them know ‘it’s okay that you’re hurting this bad’.”

Graham and her husband Colin, a semi-retired civil engineer, created Thistledown 15 years ago after their Great Pyrenees, Beau, died of bone cancer and they could find little in the way of support resources for people coping with the loss of a pet through illness, accident or euthanasia.

Believed to be the GTA’s only pet funeral home, Thistledown provides cremation, markers, niches, woodland burial plots for cremated remains (no bodies), and memorial services.

“We’re here to give every pet the dignity and respect it deserves, and help owners start healing,” explains Graham.

Larry Shackleton, a Markham business owner, brought his dog Tyler for cremation last year after the 10-year-old Great Dane died of liver failure. He had a sand-cast paw print made and later mixed some of Tyler’s ashes with ink to have the dog’s name tattooed on his arm.

“I took him everywhere with me. He was my best buddy,” says Shackleton, 41, recalling their year-long cross-country road trip together. “The whole aspect of him being properly handled (at Thistledown) meant I had an easier time saying goodbye.”

The columbarium walls are full of tributes to all manner of critters, including cats, birds, chinchillas, iguanas and rabbits. The “brave little girl” whose two-legged parents visited weekly until they moved away, was a hamster named Chi Chi. The reunited trio were Yorkshire terriers: “daddy,” son and daughter. And the police hero bid adieu by dozens of off-duty officers was 16-year-old Royal Sun, an equine member of the Toronto Police Service who died last November after suffering a severe leg injury.

“It was such an honour, such a beautiful service,” Graham says of his funeral.

Whether the deceased is furred, feathered or finned, the need to grieve is real, notes Colin.

“On anniversaries, families will bring food and flowers, or they’ll take the urn out and go for a walk. It’s very much like a human cemetery,” he says, adding dog owners often walk their still-living pets along Thistledown’s trails on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

Clients, who come from across southern Ontario, can choose from a range of services and products, including pendants with tiny receptacles for ashes, or urns costing $15 to $200. Cremation is priced at $235 for animals over 10 pounds and $135 for those under. Memorial services start at $150, depending on the features chosen and number of mourners.

No pet is too small for a dignified end-of-life, says Graham, recalling the cremation of hermit crabs and another of a child’s goldfish whose ashes went home in a little satin bag.

It’s all part of what anthrozoologist Hal Herzog calls the “humanization of pets” and their role in the family. While memorializing them illustrates “how deeply people love the animals in their lives,” to some observers “there’s a wackiness” behind it, he acknowledges.

“I would understand if people think it’s outrageous” to spend money on after-care, says Herzog, a professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in North Carolina. He points to a new twist on taxidermy in which deceased pets are freeze-dried and posed for display in the family home, a service for which a Florida business charges $325 and up.

Herzog, who’s been studying the interaction of humans and animals for 30 years, doesn’t see an ethical dilemma as long as pet owners aren’t depriving their children of new shoes or college tuition. “It’s their money and they have a right to do what they want with their money.”

While owners often leave their euthanized pet with the vet for disposal, there are private crematoriums and a handful of pet cemeteries available, including one in Orono, northeast of Toronto and another to the northwest. The Ontario Veterinary College offers a pet loss support hotline for bereaved owners.

The Dadson family of Richmond Hill turned to the Grahams for comfort after the at-home euthanasia of their beloved coonhound Sasha.

“Colin and Nancy are so understanding,” says Anne Morris Dadson. “It just makes it so much easier to lose a pet.”

She and husband Jim, both now retired, got Sasha as a rescue when their youngest son was 9. Not only was she the family’s constant companion, the tan and white pooch helped bring their middle, autistic son “out of his world,” a grateful mother says.

Having Sasha cremated and interred in a niche provided the “meaningful” memorial they wanted, Dadson says. Three years later, they still visit the “gentle little girl who has left her paw prints on our hearts.”

Content Source: Staff Reporter.

The Toronto Star

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