When looking at pet obituaries and pet cemeteries, we see the practices of mourning human death transferred to animals, especially pets. This can be seen as extending personhood to what may in other circumstances be deemed a possession. Taking this the other way, we also see death practices which solidify the idea of pet as possession, for example taxidermy. It would not even be considered appropriate in the western world (is there anywhere it would be? Hit me up, I’m intrigued!) to taxidermy a human loved one.
Taxidermy of pets likely originates from the Victorians when taxidermy more broadly was popular. Stuffed animals were found in homes, hunting lodges and museums and to some extent were considered educational. Taxidermy of pets turns a once living creature that was loved into an object, and often the people wanting to memorialise their pet would be the same people who’d argue that the pet had some degree of personhood.
“It is hard to imagine that the bereaved owners who arrange for their pets to be preserved in this way act from anything other than grief for and love of the animal they have lost; it can be equally hard to contemplate the finished product without discomfort.”
– How We Mourn Our Dead Pets
Taxidermy has historically been used for museum specimens – as a representative of an entire species – or as a way of marking human prowess when it comes to hunting. In neither case is the life of the individual celebrated by the act of taxidermy and in both cases, a statement is made about man’s dominion over nature. In hunting this is clear but in museum specimens, it is about the scientific knowledge that we gain and thus by gaining this we label ourselves above other species.
However, modern taxidermy is bucking the trend a bit and is more about the individual animal, or at least can be, especially when we’re looking at pet taxidermy. Some taxidermists won’t take pets because they are challenging – customers are hoping for a simulacrum of their loved once and putting the appearance of life into a lifeless body is a big ask.
“Instead of representing humans dominating animals, performances of modern taxidermy show humans with animals, engaged in the taxidermic process as a way to work through and even critique several of the paradigms through which humans typically engage with animals. Rather than forget or efface the lives of animals, then, modern taxidermy can facilitate the work of memory by emphasising an animal’s death and the particularity of the animal who died.”
– Mourning Animals: Rituals and Practices Surrounding Animal Death, edited by Margo de Mello
Modern technology can take taxidermy and raise it, with the process of freeze drying which alleges to give a lifelike experience in a way that taxidermy cannot. In the process of freeze drying, organs and eyes are removed, the corpse is posed and then freeze dried… And then you get to own your beloved forever! And own it is, this is not a relationship any more, you cannot argue that it is anything further than ownership. Your pet becomes your possession. It is without doubt now an object. I do wonder what happens when you run out of space for the freeze dried fido, or you pass on and your children decide to get rid of it…
There is another option if you aren’t ready to let go of your beloved pet and that is cloning. It’s incredibly expensive, exploits grieve and won’t even ensure your “new” pet has the same personality as the one that’s died, or even the same markings. It is also a cruel practice as the clone has to be incubated within a living animal and it reinforces the idea of pets as property. When your tv breaks, you buy a new one. When your dog dies, you get a clone.
“Bioethicist Jessica Pierce articulates the problem with seeing dogs as mere objects in her New York Times op-ed and notes that dog cloning “reinforces the status of dogs as things to buy and collect, and as sentimental tokens… Dogs are valued for our feelings toward them, rather than for who they are as individuals.”
– Jessica Baron
Whilst I understand the temptation to hold onto your pet for that bit longer, some of these options do make me wonder if they are a way to avoid facing the death.