Mark Lewis didn’t want to be his own customer, but it was time.
By 2004, the owner and operator of Columbia Pet Service had spent more than 10 years helping pet owners in mourning, cremating the remains of their household animals. He comforted owners through their grief, disposed of their pets in the large garage crematory at his home office in South Wenatchee, and handled the ashes as their bereaved owners specified.
For much of that time, his blue heeler Annie had been at his heel — riding along when Lewis drove to Wenatchee-area homes and veterinary clinics to pick up the bodies of deceased dogs, cats and even exotic pets.
But then 15-year-old Annie’s time came too, and Lewis had to close the heavy incinerator doors on an old friend.
“It was a very hard thing for me to do, to put her in there and say goodbye,” said Lewis, who turns 54 today. “She went with me everywhere.”
Annie’s ashes now share a wooden memorial box with those of three fondly remembered cats — Gus, McDuff and Teke. The box urn rests on an eye-level shelf in the entryway of Lewis’ office, 1466 S. Wenatchee Ave., where he’s sometimes helped shepherd pet owners from denial to acceptance.
“I’ll have people holding their deceased pet in their lap — ‘I don’t want to let go of it right now,’ ” Lewis said. “ ‘You don’t have to. Let’s sit down and let’s chat a little bit.’ And hopefully we get them into a little bit of a comfort zone to where they finally feel like they can relinquish that ownership off to me.”
Lewis and his wife, Kathy, co-owner of the business, moved into pet cremation in 1993, after Mark had spent 13 years as a Wenatchee Valley mortician — the kind who deals with human remains. It was a leap of faith, seeking clients in a largely rural area where many people know, by trade or upbringing, how to handle dead or dying animals.
What’s more, said Mark, bank loan officers looked at the Lewises like they were crazy. But investment from his parents help kick-start the project, and in 1992 the couple bought the South Wenatchee lot, built a combination home and office, and outfitted the garage with a natural gas-fueled, brick-lined, nine-ton crematory, made in Cleveland.
Lewis came upon the idea while managing human funerals when he worked at Telford’s Chapel of the Valley in East Wenatchee. “We’d gotten a lot of calls over there — most every funeral home does — ‘Do you do pet cremations? Can you help out with a doggie casket?’ … That’s what kind of planted the seed and we took it from there.”
Columbia Pet Service is the only such cremation facility in NCW. Before the Lewises’ launch, Cashmere Veterinary Clinic was the only such operator, disposing of 50 to 60 small pets a year. (The clinic has since discontinued that practice.) Lewis wanted to offer the service beyond Wenatchee, and today cremates roughly 900 to 1,000 animals a year from households as far away as Oroville and Ephrata.
Animals brought to Lewis’ office or collected from veterinary clinics are tagged for identification. He seldom cremates more than one animal at a time, and none bigger than 200 pounds, so a 38-degree cooler preserves some remains until they can be processed. The crematory burns at 1,650 degrees, as the state Department of Ecology requires — a temperature that prevents smoke and particulates from escaping into the air. From the road, the only emission from the smokestack at the peak of the Lewises’ house is a shimmer of heat.
Unless there are special circumstances: An obese pet can cause a brief plume of flame and smoke from the chimney. From time to time, worried observers have called the fire department. Nowadays Lewis can usually tell if a pet poses a flame risk, and calls RiverCom to give advance warning.
What’s left afterward is essentially the animal’s flaking and brittle skeleton, which is then powdered in a hammer-mill compactor. A standard Labrador usually winds up as 4 pounds of ash; a 170-pound Newfoundland Lewis cremated last week yielded 5 pounds. (Lewis once cremated a heavy, 8-foot boa constrictor; with its wiry skeletal structure, there wasn’t much ash left behind.) The ashes are returned to owners in one of a selection of urns, or scattered on public lands if the owner chooses not to collect them.
There is no law demanding a dead pet be cremated. Many animal owners resort to their own burials, and Chelan County transfer stations accept animal carcasses for a fee assessed by weight, volume or number of animals, depending on which station is used.
Dogs amount to about 70 percent of Lewis’ business. Cats come in a distant second; after them come the more exotic pets, like birds, lizards, snakes, pet rats, gerbils.
“I never shake my head at any of that,” Lewis said. “For every family, there’s a loss — even if it’s just a gerbil — that meant something to a little kid. There’s plenty of people that have the ashes of their gerbil sitting somewhere in their home.”
Kathy said the shift in career, from laying humans to rest to helping humans say farewell to beloved pets, helped Mark depressurize.
“At the funeral home, he was on call it seemed like all the time, and never had enough downtime to be able to relax,” said Kathy, 61. “There’s a big difference in him now.”
And the two similar jobs granted him an insight: Love is love, whether for a human or a pet.
“I’ve seen people as or more distraught over losing their pet than I had some people about losing a family member. That being said, pets give unconditionally, for the most part — best friends, hunting buddies, or a little lap dog that might be the only friend that a little old lady might have had. When that’s taken away from them, it’s a loss regardless.”
Jefferson Robbins: 664-7123