Reebok preferred eating an unattended pizza to playing a game of fetch any day. And she’d consume the whole thing.
“All the stories we have about Reebok related to food,” said the dog’s owner, Diane Nathan. So when it was time to say goodbye early last month, Nathan gathered with friends at The Pet Loss Center in Greenbrier to toast the 10-year-old yellow Lab with wine, ice cream and HoHos.
“For what it was, it was perfect,” Nathan said of the 2½-hour memorial service that included a visitation before the dog was euthanized by a veterinarian. “People sat with me and let me talk about her, which was what was best for me.”
The Pet Loss Center was founded in 2014 by Coleen Ellis and Nicholas Padlo. The Chesapeake location opened a few months ago in what was Companion Animal Cremation Services. It joins a handful of other centers based in Texas and Florida.
Ellis, who switched from humans to pets in the funeral business about 14 years ago, said they chose Hampton Roads because it appeared to be “a very pet-loving market.” A community event from noon to 5 p.m. today is meant to celebrate what Ellis considers its grand opening weekend.
Decorated in purple and green, with movable seating and a children’s play area, the center is a safe place where families can express their grief unfettered by shame or self-consciousness, she said.
“Mourning is the active part of grieving,” Ellis said. “We respect it. We honor it. We pay tribute to it.”
On a recent Wednesday, the smell of oakmoss, bergamot orange, nutmeg and oakwood essential oils filled the center. There are about a dozen scents that provide aromatherapy for grief, manager Dani Porter said.
Porter worked for Companion Animal Cremation Services for 12 years and stayed on board when The Pet Loss Center took over and renovated the space, she said.
The center offers private and communal cremation services for animals up to roughly 350 pounds. There are many ways to memorialize a pet: lockets, blown glass and biodegradable, fish-shaped bamboo urns for goldfish . Prices range from $40 to nearly $500.
“When it comes to death, loss, grief – every part of that is what we have in our center,” Ellis said, including one-on-one support for clients and teaching veterinarians how to help pet parents through their grief.
The center does not perform euthanasia, but it provides a space for veterinarians to do it.
According to a 2017-18 national survey conducted by the American Pet Product Association, 68 percent of U.S. households own a pet. That’s about 84.6 million homes. More households have dogs than cats, but felines outnumber canines by about 4.5 million. From food to vet care, it’s estimated that $69.36 billion will be spent in 2017 on pets in the U.S., according to the association’s website. It wasn’t clear whether that amount included end-of-life services.
“When my own pet died, I stopped everything and had to figure out why there was no help for me and no books on pet loss,” said Wallace Sife, who founded the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement about 20 years ago. More and more places like The Pet Loss Center are opening to meet the needs of owners, he said.
Nathan, an administrator at the BluePearl veterinary hospital next door, said people seem willing to do – and spend – more for their pets than in the past. The Pet Loss Center is the hospital’s primary crematorium, she said.
Pet owners and family members who want to witness that part of the process can do so, Ellis said. Caskets for backyard burials are available as well, although Ellis said they’re still looking for a partnering pet cemetery, as well as sites where unclaimed ashes from communal cremations can be interred.
Ellis and the three women who work at the center talk about the “why” that drives them to do what they do. For Ellis, it’s Mico, the terrier-schnauzer mix who died of cancer. For relationship manager Bethany Nadolski, it’s Oliver, the 37-year-old horse who is memorialized in a piece of artwork on the center’s wall. For Crystal Carter, a technician, it’s simply about helping people during their time of grief.
The work isn’t easy, they said, but it is meaningful.