FORT LOUDON, Pa. -- In the back corner of Mac's Taxidermy shop, Christine Pinkowicz-Craig's pet pug, Pogo, sits frozen inside a machine that looks like a refrigerator.
"He's coming along nicely," said Mike "Mac" McCullough, the shop's proprietor and one of few taxidermists in the country willing to freeze-dry people's expired pets. "They're coming back to get him in a couple of weeks," McCullough said over the slow drip and hum of the machine.
That's none too soon for Pinkowicz-Craig, an English professor from Dunellen, N.J., who said Pogo's final resting spot will be atop the piano in her living room.
"He's created so much life beyond himself, we couldn't imagine destroying him and not being able to see him again," she said.
For pet lovers like Pinkowicz-Craig, freeze-drying has become an attractive option for preserving their departed pets and being able to keep them around the house.
The procedure entails freezing an animal, carefully posing it and slowly vacuuming away the moisture in a climate-controlled machine. It differs from conventional taxidermy, in which a trophy kill is skinned, gutted and boned and the hide stretched over an artificial form.
The freeze-dried pet remains intact and stays its original size but weighs about 80 percent less than it once did. It requires little maintenance, other than an occasional fluff and spritz of cedar residue to maintain gloss and deter bugs.
The work is less labor-intensive than traditional taxidermy, but many taxidermists dislike the idea of freeze-drying pets, in part because it is seen as a departure from the purer traditions of the craft. It's also more expensive.
A standard freeze-dryer runs about $10,000 and larger ones cost up to $40,000, said Al Anger of Freezedry Specialties Inc., a company that makes the machines.
"There aren't a lot of taxidermists in the U.S. that will mount pets," said Cindy Crain, of the National Taxidermists Association in Louisiana, which represents about 75,000 practicing members. "It's like you're handling someone's children. It's very difficult for us as taxidermists and as artists to recreate your pet's personality."
McCullough started experimenting with freeze-drying about five years ago when a friend asked if he could do something with her poodle. Now he says his three freeze-driers are almost always full even though he turns away thousands of dollars in business each week from bereaved pet owners across the country.
"I have to mount five deer heads to make the same amount of profit I make off one pet," said McCullough, who does most of his freeze-drying work on cats and dogs -- although one person brought in a cockatiel.
He added that a lot of taxidermists "are just not willing to do it. They're insulted. They say, 'I mount deer heads, not dogs."'
Al Holmes, whose taxidermy studio is in Wetumpka, Ala., said his shop gets about 300 pets a year for freeze-drying.
"We have dogs and cats from all over," he said. "Ohio, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, New York and New Jersey. A lady even came on a Greyhound bus" from Miami with her house cat, packed in a cooler.
Gail Timberlake, of Winchester, Va., came to Mac's with her cat, named Father Ron. She couldn't bring herself to say goodbye after her best friend of 21 years was put to sleep.
Asked if she still pets her freeze-dried feline, Timberlake laughed.
"Of course," she said. "I say, 'Hi little boy, how are you doing?' And I swear, sometimes he purrs."
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