Crispy Critters

Opponents dog plans for a Pearland-area pet crematory

He compares his proposed operation to that of other businesses that in effect cook up animal carcasses as well: fast-food joints. Crespo says they spew 7.5 times the amount of organic compounds that will be emitted by his facility.

Nancy Firestien, a spokeswoman for TNRCC, did liken it to burning wood in a fireplace, although the crematory would be even less threatening because it would burn natural gas instead of wood.

So why the fiery overtones in Anderson's opposition?

Ginny Anderson loves her pets - but not the crematory plan.
Deron Neblett
Ginny Anderson loves her pets - but not the crematory plan.
Ginny Anderson loves her pets - but not the crematory plan.
Deron Neblett
Ginny Anderson loves her pets - but not the crematory plan.
Ginny Anderson loves her pets - but not the crematory plan.
Deron Neblett
Ginny Anderson loves her pets - but not the crematory plan.

Crespo and the TNRCC are saying that everything is on a small scale, "but everybody is on a small scale," Anderson laments. "You know, the airport is on a small scale, this is on a small scale. When do you add them up and see that it becomes a large scale?"

Opponents have voiced fears about the potential fallout. They have said that cremating or burying disease-laden lab animals could contaminate the air and well water, not to mention having it tainted from embalming fluid. However, the TNRCC permit application specifically states that Crespo would be banned from burning lab "test animals, in whole or part" -- as well as human remains of any kind. And there's no embalming involved. The crematory, of course, could seek to modify the restrictions at some later point, although that would require another series of hearings and TNRCC evaluations.

Thus far, the opponents are mostly on their own in the battle. Pearland City Council notes that the property is outside its jurisdiction. And the Pearland school district remains neutral. "From what we have ascertained, it is not going to be a health hazard," says Susan Lenamon, a PISD spokeswoman. "We're not for it or against it; we're silently listening."

As for Crespo, his much-stated compassion for pet owners may be coupled with a less proclaimed motive: money. He hardly needs marketing research to discover that pet cemeteries and crematories are a hot business now. The trend toward more humane treatment of animals has created a growth industry of international proportions. In January, even the Russian capital of Moscow made plans for its first pet cemetery and crematory.

The latest Houston yellow pages lists nine companies now in that business. And there may soon be ten.

While hardly coming up with a comforting name like All God's Creatures, Cabredon Animal Disposal went through the same TNRCC hearing process last October. It plans to build a small incinerator just off Lee Road, near FM 1960 north of Bush Intercontinental Airport. Subdivision activists in Cypresswood are mounting similar complaints about the potential effects on children, especially those with respiratory problems. The TNRCC's Dick Lewis says that the application remains in the review stage.

Four years ago a brief glimpse of the business of pet burial came in a civil lawsuit filed by Little Friends Pet Memorial of Houston. It sued to halt the opening of a Tulsa pet cemetery and crematory. That Oklahoma operator had paid an initial $5,000 to Little Friends to learn the inside operation, marketing techniques and trade secrets, such as invaluable contacts with referring veterinarians. Little Friends was supposed to also get a $25,000 fee and an 8 percent cut of revenues from the new operation. Instead, the man canceled the contract -- but allegedly used his newfound expertise to open the business anyway.

The books of these businesses are proprietary, although pet cremation services seem to be capable of firing up profits. A typical natural gas furnace and installation is estimated at $50,000 to $100,000.

Fees to customers vary according to the size of the dead animal and the desired accessories, such as ornamental containers for the ashes. A typical terrier can be torched for about $30 if the ashes are merely scattered by the crematory; that goes up to more than $100 if the owner wants to store the remains in a stylish urn. A cemetery plot for the ashes pumps up the price much higher.

Many owners still recoil at the budget-conscious option: throwing a beloved and faithful Fluffy out with the trash.

The price is much cheaper than that for a human's cremation or burial, although the prospective client pool is much broader. A person might live 70 years before death requires disposal; animal mortuaries can count on about four pets dying in that same amount of time.

According to the draft permit, Crespo's All God's Creatures could burn the equivalent of 100 pounds of animal carcasses hourly, with the oven operating up to ten hours a day, or 3,640 hours annually. He notes that he does not plan to fire it up anywhere close to that capacity. However, the crematory could conceivably gross about $700,000 annually if it could incinerate an average of four 25-pound pets hourly, at $50 each, over the course of a year.

Of course, financial stakes are not limited to that side in this dogfight. Listen to the opponents long enough, and they invariably get around to a bottom line: They believe that burning animals would hurt the real estate market.

"People are worried about it driving down their property value and what they're going to be exposed to. I understand that he wants to make money," Anderson says, "but why couldn't he do it somewhere else?"

Crespo counters: "I bought this land because it's in a convenient high-traffic location, close to my house -- and because I can [buy it]. I would never create something that would harm my children or any other children."

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