Chuck Rupert works with critters. That’s what he calls them at his shop, Second Life Freeze Dry, in rural northwestern Pennsylvania. He works, specifically, with your critters—his subject could be your dog, cat, ferret, rodent, turtle, even your bearded dragon. If you loved it, and it’s small enough to fit in an industrial freeze dryer, Rupert will preserve it for you.
Freeze-drying is the art of using extremely cold temperatures and vacuum pressure to remove all the moisture from an animal’s tissue to halt the pesky toll decomposition takes on the dead. Like taxidermy, it leaves animals looking like they did the day they died. Forever. It’s hard to get an estimate on the number of pet freeze dryers in the country, but fewer than 10 compete for most of the market. Rupert is one of the leading pet freeze dryers in the business.
Tucked into a patch of trees among miles of farmland, Rupert’s shop looks equal parts laboratory and hobby studio. It’s a single, low-ceilinged room partly occupied by two barrel-shaped, mildly futuristic freezers. There’s big jug of purple liquid on one workbench with a hose sticking out of it, and some tools that could belong in a woodshop or dentist’s office. Even with all that going on, it’s hard to notice anything except the critters.
Upon entering, you’re greeted by a freeze-dried coyote, its sable coat shiny, eyes gleaming. Next to the coyote is a stainless steel cart covered with cats and small dogs. More dried cats perch on a workbench, near a turtle the size of your hand, and a Chihuahua named Chance, who lived to be 13. His owners, Keith and April Bowser, are making the two-hour drive to pick him up today. The Bowsers decided to have Chance preserved when he was only a few years old, but waited until the end was near to contact Rupert.
Like all of the critters Rupert handles, Chance arrived frozen. The Bowsers froze him in their chest freezer, then drove him to the shop. Other clients overnight their pets, packed in coolers of dry ice. To get their critters to Rupert, foreign pet owners wrestle with customs paperwork and shipping insurance. It’s not uncommon for a Canadian to drive across the border just to ship Rupert an animal. Crossing the border with a dead dog in your trunk is easy; sending it by mail, apparently, is not.
The Bowser family provided instructions as to how to pose their dog, with pictures of Chance in the position they’d like him to spend eternity. To get Chance there, Rupert first thawed the dog, replaced his eyes with fakes, removed his organs, and injected him with the purple stuff—distilled water with just a nip of embalming fluid. Rupert then manipulated Chance into the pose and tacked him to a piece of wood, like an insect in a science project. In the freeze dryer, at temperatures well below 0, every bit of moisture was pulled from Chance, slowly so that the cells retain their shape. Rupert knew that Chance was finished when all of his flesh was firm to the touch.
Now, freeze-dried and unpinned, Chance looks remarkable, sporting the same harried look that you see in the faces of live Chihuahuas. It’s clear, given the expression, that freeze-drying is skilled work. But Rupert says the airbrushing and freezer coordination is the easy part. It’s the interpersonal skills that make the job truly challenging.
“It’s as much a counseling business as it is a science business,” Rupert tells me over the hum of the freeze-driers. He’s a thickset, outdoorsy-looking guy in his 50s, bearded and wearing a green hoodie featuring the Second Life Freeze Dry logo. He doesn’t look like the kind of man who would freeze-dry his own pet, and indeed, he wouldn’t—it might make him too sad.
On the wall of Rupert’s office are cards sent by his clients. Many contain handwritten notes of gratitude and some contain pictures of their dead pets. (At least I think they’re dead. It’s hard to tell.) “When most people call me,” he explains, “they’re in a major grief-stricken situation. I tell them that the key is to get them frozen ASAP. Once you’ve done that, there’s no rush. Then we can wait months to decide. I don’t want to be the dog-cat ambulance chaser.”
Rupert’s clients choose freeze-drying over traditional taxidermy—where an animal hide is stretched across a pre-made Styrofoam form—for a lot of reasons. Most taxidermists can’t, or won’t, handle pets because of the pressure to get it right and the lack of pre-made forms for each kind of animal. (A deer just has to look like a deer. Your dog has to look exactly like your dog.) Rupert’s clients also like that the process feels less invasive. With only the eyes and organs are removed, your dog is returned more or less intact.
More or less, though, turns out to not be good enough for some of Rupert’s clients. Sitting in his office chair, Rupert takes a stack of client files from his desk. “Not sure how you far you want to go into this,” he says, with a bit of excitement. First, Rupert tells me about his clients’ special requests, like their desire to also freeze-dry their pets’ organs (possible, but the results aren’t great, or as Rupert puts it, “not very aesthetic”). “There are people that just cannot beget their pet not being whole,” he says. A man from the Southwest recently wanted his corgi’s organs removed, freeze-dried, and sewn back into the dog, which was then freeze-dried and shipped home. Then, the man buried it. It cost him $2,000.
While pet preservation goes back as far back as ancient Egypt, it’s always been an indulgence of the rich. At Second Life, the price to freeze-dry a house cat can reach $1,000. For a beagle, double it. But for the people who choose to freeze-dry a pet, price doesn’t seem like a concern at all. The heart wants what it wants.
And hearts, unsurprisingly, are a reoccurring theme at Second Life. “This guy,” Rupert says, showing me the file of a single man in his 30s, the owner of a cat named Iggy. “He had questions almost every day, even when the cat was in the dryer.” Animals can be in the dryer for weeks or even months, depending on their size and density. “He’d always want me to talk to the cat. Tell the cat this, tell the cat that. He wanted Iggy’s heart dried and painted this certain shade of blue. So I did it. He got Iggy’s heart back.”
Recently, Rupert preserved a dog for an artist from Manhattan. In her file are gorgeous sketches that she mailed to Rupert, highlighting the way her dog used to tilt his head when he smiled. She also asked for the heart back, non-freeze-dried, because she went on to preserve it herself so she could keep it on a jar on her desk. Rupert appreciated that—it irritates him when his clients are too squeamish, which they often are. Many won’t put their pets in their own freezers after the pets die. Often, they can’t figure out how to wrap their dead pets in plastic.
Rupert is from a rural community, where animal death is a part of everyday life. A self-identified “science guy,” he takes a nuts-and-bolts approach to critters and doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a hunter and a trapper. (While he hasn’t freeze-dried his own pets, he has processed some of these animals.) “I’ll contend to the day it ends that I love animals more than anything,” Rupert says, while acknowledging that “there’s a faction of my clients who can’t understand that.”
He has his own reservations about some of his clients too. Rupert shows me a cat from a shelf of animals awaiting pickup that was missing most of its fur, with a sunken face and warped mouth. That’s how the cat looked when he got it—because it spent its last 10 months with a feeding tube. “You know what that freaking animal went through,” Rupert says. “It was tortured.” This, he explains, is why the majority of critters are posed with their paws crossed: By the time they die, they’ve had a leg shaved for an IV drip. Many pets, it turns out, die the way that people do—in hospitals, tethered to machines.
Rupert entered the freeze-drying business in 2014, after losing his job in the oil and gas industry. Having originally gone to school to be a wildlife technician, Rupert reached out to Mac McCullough, “the guru” of animal freeze-drying, who was featured in the Wall Street Journal for his work. He’s also a master taxidermist and tattoo artist. McCullough and Rupert spent their weekends together cutting, sewing, freezing, and painting dead critters. By the time Rupert’s apprenticeship was up, McCullough agreed to sell him his freeze-dry business. “He’d been doing it for 15-plus years,” Rupert says, tapping the stack of client files. “It’ll wear on you, this part of it. They’re a different clientele [than wildlife taxidermy]. And you’re seeing them at their weirdest and most interesting.”
Occasionally, Rupert will get calls from people who have just buried a pet and now want to dig it up, or from people who are completely paralyzed by loss. “Sometimes it’s like a wake. Their dog died, and they’ve done nothing. They just spent a whole day holding him. They’ve just spent one, two days with a dead animal sitting in their house.” But for the most part, people don’t waffle about whether they want to preserve their pet.
Eventually, Rupert finds a file he was clearly anticipating. He hands it to me and leans back in his chair, a boyish grin on his face. I scan the document, missing everything except for the phrase “my mother’s amputated foot.”
“What,” is all I can say.
He nods for me to keep reading.
I do. A man contacted Rupert from California because his mother needed her foot amputated and they wanted it preserved so she could have it buried with her when she died, per her religious customs. Rupert told him: “I can, but I need to find out if I can. Legally speaking.” So he checked with the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association, and it turned out he could.
“I suggested just putting it in the freezer,” he says. “Save the hassle and the expense and give it to the funeral director when it’s time for Mom.” But the foot arrived a few days later. Rupert admits it was “kind of odd” to work on it. “But it didn’t bother me much, partly because if they have to cut your foot off, it’s not a good-looking foot to begin with.” To Rupert, the strangest part of the whole ordeal was the response from his wolfhound, Mogli. When he unwrapped the frozen foot, Mogli “would have gone through the door to get out the shop. And he wouldn’t come in here for weeks. He was absolutely wigged out.”
Although he recently refused a request to freeze-dry a man’s testicles, Rupert would consider working on body parts again. Because “at the end of the day it was just a foot. And it felt good to be able to help those people.”
And indeed, for all his complaining, his main takeaway from is work is simple, he tells me. “I have learned that people deal with death in different ways,” he says. “Ultimately, I’ve learned to respect the idea that there’s not one way to grieve.”
That couldn’t be more apparent than when the Bowsers arrive.
I’d been expecting a little more pageantry to the unveiling. In my mind, Rupert would return from a backroom carrying the dog covered in a white sheet, lifting it off like a magician revealing a dove. But the door to the studio simply opens and there stands Keith Bowser, looking at his companion preserved on the table.
“Wow,” he says. “That’s him. That’s Boo-Boo.” (Chance’s nickname, I learn.)
Keith’s wife April tries to follow him in. But she gets one foot in the door and turns around. “Nope,” she says. “Can’t do it.” The door shuts behind her.
“Yeah, there he is,” Rupert says. “He turned out good, didn’t he?”
Keith approaches his dog slowly, looking him over from every angle before touching him. Eventually April comes inside, taking care not to look directly at the dog.
“Don’t you cry,” Rupert says, patting her on the shoulder. “If you start crying, I’ll start crying.”
“You did wonderful,” she says. “I was kind of hoping it’d be bad.”
The Bowsers are concerned about how their other dogs will react to Chance. Rupert reassures them that other pets hardly notice their freeze-dried siblings. (There’s no smell.) The Bowsers tell me that they’ve had different feelings about the process all along and have agreed that if it makes April too sad, they will store Chance in the closet. Keith, nestling Chance in one arm, says, “I’ve always said to put him in the coffin with me because he went everywhere with me.”
April looks at him. “Well,” she says. “Whichever one of us goes first gets him.”