As pet deathcare providers, we assist families with the euthanasia process in their own homes and with the disposition of their pet’s body once death has occurred. Most families chose traditional dispositions like burial or cremation. Less frequently, they may choose something untraditional, like taxidermy. This would be the first time we’ve ever worked with clients who requested cryogenic preservation.
It was nearly 7:30 pm in Richmond, California, in late March of 2018, and from the crest where I stood I could see the last dregs of the sun slipping below the horizon. Across the Bay, the silhouette of San Francisco was drenched in shades of hazy sherbet. My husband Derek and I held hands as we slipped inside the corner house’s gate and knocked on the door. His black medical kit, a plain bag, was slung over one shoulder to hang on his hip.
Laura, a tall, online psychology professor in her fifties with a background in hospice and crisis line work, ushered us inside. Her son, Jordan, a quiet 27-year-old college student, slipped into the room after us. We were there to meet Dakota, a 14-year-old mixed breed dog who was dying of right-sided heart failure.
In late April 2017, our own dog Harper was dying of heart failure, too. We eventually euthanized her in our living room, sitting on our red leather couch, with our favorite band playing quietly from the speakers as I held her to my chest the same way we took naps together over our nine years together. Once she died, I placed her in a casket lined with a bright pink towel and surrounded her body with flowers and her favorite treats. We took pictures of her before the procedure and after she was arranged in her casket. Then we drove to the crematory. I placed her body in the retort myself, and we picked her up an hour later. Sitting in our parked car with her urn in my lap, we decided to open a veterinary practice focused on providing in-home hospice, palliative care, and euthanasia. Derek was a veterinarian; I worked as a licensed funeral director, embalmer, and crematory operator across the Bay Area before moving to pet deathcare. We believed that a good death was an integral part of a good life.
Hospice and palliative care is healthcare focused on maximizing quality of life, usually for terminally ill patients. Dakota the dog was that kind of patient. He had right-sided heart failure, a chronic condition in which the heart muscle or valves doesn’t pump blood efficiently. As a result, the fluids back up into the abdomen. (Left-sided heart failure causes the blood to back up in the lungs instead, leading to breathing problems and eventual suffocation.) Laura and Jordan had been managing Dakota’s illness with medication, administration of concentrated oxygen, and periodic drainage of the fluid from his abdomen. Ultimately, most causes of heart disease in dogs are not reversible conditions. Death is not a matter of if, but when.
Normally, we advise that families choose euthanasia over a natural death. As we explain it, the body is a machine whose dominant goal is to continue functioning. It will push to do so regardless of pain or difficulty. Euthanasia hastens the natural dying process as painlessly as we know how to with current medical science. Jordan and Laura wanted Dakota to die naturally, without the assistance of euthanasia medications, but they also wanted to ensure his pain was managed.
“As a veterinarian, my primary role and ethical imperative is to advocate on behalf of the pet, who is at a disadvantage in the decision-making process to begin with,” Derek explains, as he remembers Dakota. “Even at the expense of disappointing or angering the owner, advocating for the most ethical death experience is forefront.” If Dakota had been dying of left-sided heart failure, the type that causes suffocation, Derek would have insisted on euthanasia as the most humane and ethical choice. Because Dakota was experiencing right-sided heart failure instead, a natural death was acceptable because the amount of suffering was minimal. (Pain is one type of suffering, but there are many different types of suffering, including nausea, malaise, fatigue, and fear.) Derek and I provided a hospice Emergency Comfort Kit filled with sedatives and pain relief, as encouraged by the International Association for Animal Hospice and Palliative Care.
Jordan let us know that they were interested in cryogenically preserving Dakota’s body after death, a process he first learned about when he was a teenager. “My dad died when I was 10,” Jordan would later tell me. “I think that sort of really made me more aware of mortality in a way most 10-year-olds aren’t.” He and Laura arranged to have Dakota received at the Cryonics Institute (CI) in Detroit, Michigan, a place that describes cryonics as “a form of one-way medical time travel.” Cryopreservation is the process where biological tissue, like a body, is cooled to very low temperatures with the intention of stopping chemical processes that might cause damage to the tissue, like decomposition. The bodies (or patients, as they’re referred to in the industry) are held in a dewar, a tall stainless steel vat. Ultimately, the end goal of cryopreservation is to hold the body in stasis until new technology is invented that can reverse or cure the injury or ailment that caused death.
Cryopreservation of tissue isn’t a new concept. In 1964, a physics teacher named Robert Ettinger published The Prospect of Immortality, a book which promoted the concept of cryonics. By 1972, the first cryonics organization was founded (a company now called Alcor, located in Scottsdale, AZ.) And the technology used in the cryopreservation process is even older than that.
“The tech we use goes back to the time of Queen Victoria,” Steve Garan tells me over the phone. Garan is the Chief Technology Officer of TransTime, a cryonic suspension service out of San Leandro, CA that was founded in 1974. He’s also a Research Fellow at UC Berkeley, the Director of Bioinformatics at the Center for Research & Education on Aging, and a researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. “Cryogenic liquids were synthesized back in the late 1800s... The dewar was developed back in the 1800s as well. We use Victorian technology.”
Cryopreservation of biological material has included semen, blood, tissues like tumors, eggs, embryos, ovarian tissue, and plant seeds, but as of yet no human has been cryopreserved and revived. “In order to do that, you’d have to cure whatever caused their death,” chuckles Garan. “...[But] there are people walking around today that were frozen embryos,” he offers as proof of concept. For every open letter on cryonic justification signed by scientists, you can find a similar counterargument denouncing it as snake oil mixed with false hopes.
In Richmond, Derek and I gently counseled Laura and Jordan about the scientific validity of cryonics, ensuring they fully understood that there is, as of yet, no proof as to the likelihood of success. The contract they signed with CI is similarly shrouded in dire legal jargon: Laura and Jordan must represent that they understand “cryonic cryopreservation is an unknown, untested process, and that no human being, or any adult vertebrate, has ever been successfully cryonically suspended and revived,” and that “the success of cryopreservation depends on future advances in science and technology and that the probability of success is completely unknown.” CI charged $7,300 for the privilege of storing Dakota’s body after death, excluding the costs of shipping his body there as soon as possible after dying.
Laura doesn’t disagree. “I would not advise anybody to do it,” she tells me frankly, speaking quickly but clearly. “I think they’re just throwing money away.” She used life insurance money from her husband’s death to cover most of the costs and bridged the gap by borrowing from her retirement fund. Jordan still feels gratitude about both the money spent and the fact that spending it didn’t affect their quality of life. He plans to repay her once he’s graduated and making money.
Derek and I agree that besides the necessity of ensuring the comfort of the pet, a huge part of our work is focused on helping the family find comfort in their moment of grief. If money is a tool meant to improve our life’s experience while we’re living, and cryopreservation of Dakota’s body contributes to a sense of solace for Laura and Jordan, then we have successfully completed at least one facet of our job.
Laura acknowledges that she’s choosing of her own free will and volition to sign the paperwork, pay the fees, and send Dakota (and, eventually, in February 2020, their 16-year-old dog Maggie, too) to be cryopreserved. But she believes the industry preys upon people’s fear of death.
“It magnifies my fear of death,” she explains. “It makes me more afraid to die. I’m concerned they might start cryopreserving me before I’m fully dead, I might feel it, it might be painful.” And the thought of waking up a millennium from now, surrounded by people with different customs, technology, and languages, contributes to her fear.
She won’t fully commit to saying that patients will never be revived—she’s “been wrong before”—but posits that the number of variables that have to fall into place for it to happen seem unlikely. “There are so many factors that are going to have to work out perfectly.”
Jordan himself isn’t actually fully sold on the feasibility, either. “I think there’s a reasonable enough chance that it’s worth doing,” he explains carefully, his measured cadence in direct opposition to his mom’s rapid-fire responses. “I sort of see it like an insurance policy. I mean, if you’re decomposed in the ground or burnt to ash [via cremation], there’s basically a zero percent chance of ever living again.” He likens it to Pascal’s Wager, a philosophical argument that posits humans bet with their lives in the existence or nonexistence of God. Pascal’s Wager argues that a rational person should live as though God exists, as his nonexistence will result in finite loss, whereas they stand to receive infinite gains (an eternity in Heaven) or suffer infinite loss (eternity in hell) for atheism.
Jordan’s other big argument is the shifting litmus test for what constitutes death. “Through most of the existence of animal life, if your heart stops, you’re dead,” he says. “But now, of course, there’s plenty of people who have gone into cardiac arrest and been resuscitated. Look at someone like Dick Cheney, who was alive… without a heartbeat… walking and talking.” (After a series of heart attacks, Cheney had a small pump called a left ventricular assist device installed while waiting for a heart transplant. The devices creates continuous blood flow and results in no pulse or measurable blood pressure.)
After Derek and I left, we exchanged emails with Laura late into the evening, collecting information about the requirements to ship Dakota’s body to CI. We originally planned to use UPS. Per CI’s instructions, Dakota should be wrapped in a towel, contained within a plastic bag, tucked into a “good quality cooler” secured with clear tape, cooled with bags of ice. From there, he should be packed into a large cardboard box and shipped as an animal diagnostic specimen. The words “dead dog” or “dead animal” were not to be used, lest they cause the UPS employee to refuse the package. Time, we were told, is of the essence. With cryopreservation of people, if there is advance warning of the death, the patient is placed in an ice bath within seconds of clinical death being declared. Decomposition begins immediately.
Dakota died overnight. The dog’s death led to a mad scramble, where the best laid plans of veterinarians and cryonic institutes ultimately go awry when two UPS employees refuse the shipment. I did what I could to assist with the process, but my hands were tied by the failure of the UPS to follow their own bureaucratic policies. My contact at CI told me this kind of screw-up is a rarity and depends solely on the employee; they claimed to have received another pet via UPS shipment through without issue.
One full day passes. Then another. Derek and I worried and wondered about what happened. Did Dakota get there? Even if Dakota got there, would he be able to be cryopreserved? Does water ice even follow the appropriate standards for good cryopreservation? Were we helping our clients get ripped off by assisting in this process?
I eventually found out that Laura was put in touch with Garan at TransTime, who delivered Dakota’s body in person via commercial flight from California to Michigan. TransTime doesn’t normally handle the cryopreservation of pets, but Garan is also a pet owner; he has a 15-year-old dog named Skippy and could empathize with Laura’s predicament. “Dogs are like family,” he says. “We treat them almost like children, in a way.” He had no problem assisting with the transfer and he jokes that the x-ray technician who took Dakota’s body through security nearly fainted.
Dakota was finally received at CI and his body cryopreserved in a dewar, per Laura and Jordan’s instructions. Jordan says he was sent a picture of Dakota cryopreserved in Michigan, and tells me he has no worries about it being an outright scam. “It seems like it would be a pretty big conspiracy if they’re not really even freezing the bodies,” he says.
Even without physically seeing the procedure performed, Laura’s gut feeling is also that Dakota was properly preserved and stored. “They genuinely believe in what they’re doing. I don’t believe they’re consciously setting out to take advantage of people.”
For their part, CI Headquarters say they try to be as open as possible so people can find comfort and closure. They have pets shipped via water ice because dry ice freezes a pet’s smaller body and prevents perfusion, a process involving an injection of cryoprotective solutions that decreases freezing damage to the cells. (Though pets like birds are not perfused because their vascular systems are too small to work with, which means they’re frozen and more likely to suffer damage than a perfused pet.) CI currently has 184 pets in cryopreserved storage.
Garan notes that while the repair job for Dakota may be more difficult because of the time between death and cryopreservation, it’s not impossible. “By the time we get to that point, it may be kind of irrelevant,” he says. The technology to do so could exist in the form of bioprinters, biogenerators, nanorobotics, the human/brain cloud... At the end of the day, there’s just as much uncertainty about the preservation of a pet as there is about people. “The bottom line is… they have all the time for technology to do its thing.”
When I speak to Laura nearly two years after Dakota’s death, she’s a week out from her second dog’s death. She and Jordan have also elected to have Maggie’s body cryopreserved, though this time closer to home at TransTime. (Garan, for his part, makes it clear that TransTime will only consider pet cryopreservation if their accompanying human has plans to be preserved as well.)
Both Laura and Jordan felt like cryopreserving Dakota and Maggie was stressful to undergo. “I wouldn’t call it a pleasant process by any means,” says Jordan, though he does point out that working closer to home certainly made things easier. For Laura, the grief of Maggie’s death combined with the stress of logistics plus the added remorse of money spent has her feeling sad and depressed.
“It’s almost like with both dogs, I didn’t really have a chance to grieve and mourn because there was so much hassle to make this happen.” She vacillates between worrying about whether it’s unhealthy that Jordan has a lifetime of false hope that he might get his dogs back and feeling adamant that it’s worth it to grant Jordan that modicum of hope and protect him from his fear.
For Jordan, his intense fear of death, of nonexistence, and of a negative afterlife are enough to overpower any frustrations caused through the process. “If I did it for myself, but I didn’t do it for Maggie and Dakota… when I woke up… then I would regret it forever,” he says.
Ace Ratcliff lives and works in sunny Boynton Beach, FL with their veterinarian husband and a pack of wild beasts. Their hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome makes for a rebellious meatcage. They like reading, getting tattooed, and tweeting @mortuaryreport.