Grieving pet owners who paid for private cremations but received generic ashes instead have few options except to sue the facilities, says a lawyer angry that there are no laws governing pet cremation standards in B.C.
Recent undercover testing of 12 Vancouver-area and Vancouver Island crematoriums on behalf of a private organization revealed widespread evidence of consumer deception, including facilities that performed mass cremations and returned ashes of other animals to owners who paid for private services.
Six crematoriums that underwent a recent undercover test of their procedures failed, including the city-run Vancouver pound.
During the crematorium testing, private investigators submitted plush toy cats purchased at Walmart instead of a real animal, because the stuffed animals should only return a small amount of ash -- and no bone fragments. In each failed case, the facility returned the wrong remains – urns full of animal bones.
The private investigation was paid for by the Pet Cremation Alliance, a group of animal lovers and pet industry experts who suspected unethical behaviour on the part of some companies who they say were severely undercutting the competition in B.C.
Animal lawyer Rebeka Breder considers herself a victim of this deception. She had her cat Leonard privately cremated at one of the facilities that failed undercover testing.
She now doubts the ashes are those of her beloved Tabby cat.
"It's completely unethical," she told CTV's Steele on Your Side.
Unlike the human funeral and cremation industry, pet crematoriums are not regulated by any government body and there are no acts or pieces of legislation that govern the way pets are being cremated.
This gives unethical businesses carte blanche to deceive consumers, Breder added.
"I think the reason why they're getting away with it is because they think ‘well, what are people going to do about it?"
Courtenay RCMP launched a fraud investigation into a local crematorium last year, but the case was closed after several months because officers did not find evidence of criminality.
Mounties in that jurisdiction told CTV's Steele on Your Side that the issue was a civil matter, and not something its officers would examine further.
Breder said duped pet owners have no real recourse but to sue civilly, but it's a process that could cost thousands of dollars and take several years to recover the simple cost of a $150 cremation.
"I think the reason this has been able to go on for so long is that industry assumes that people aren't going to take them to task," she said.
"They assume no one will challenge them because once it goes through the legal system the costs will greatly outweigh the benefit."
Tatiana Chabeaux-Smith of Consumer Protection BC said so far her organization hasn't heard from any pet owners concerned about the way their pet was privately cremated.
She's urging concerned consumers to contact the consumer watchdog group to issue a formal complaint. Consumers can call 1-888-564-9963.
"What we would do is look into it and see whether it falls under any of the sections of our law that we can help them," she said.
The agency may push the province to create new legislation if enough people make their concerns public.
Pet crematorium owners who play by the rules are angry, and say the failed tests give the whole industry a bad name.
"It's devastating," said Kevin Woronchak, who owns the Until We Meet Again Pet Memorial Center in North Vancouver. His memorial centre is one of just three that passed the undercover testing.
"It's playing with someone's precious loved one for profit and that's very, very disappointing."
Victoria writer Ann Lockley said she felt something was amiss with the ashes of her two dogs when she went to spread their ashes a few years ago.
The urns of her dogs, a 40-pound pit bull named Tornado and a 90-pound German Shepherd, contained exactly the same amount of remains.
"Immediately I knew something is fishy," she said. "There's no way. There's no way that this is possible."
Lockley calls the math "criminal."
"There's no way that that makes sense."
Ann suspects the crematorium that handled her dogs saved money by cremating a bunch of pets at the same time and simply returning generic ashes to pet owners.
Grieving pet owners can protect themselves from deceptive practices by witnessing the cremation of their pet, a service available at many pet memorial centres.
"You can witness your pet going into the oven. That's what I would do because then I know that my pet was the only animal in that oven at that time," said private investigator Ivan Chu of Lions Gate Investigations.
He added that there "might be a good reason" why some crematoriums don't offer the service.
If you're not keen to watch the actual cremation, pet owners are advised to ask crematoriums the following questions:
What specifically is your definition of a "private" cremation?
How do you identify animals' individual ashes?
How do you store and transport ashes after cremation?
How do you ensure the ashes I receive will be those of my pet alone?
Concerned pet owners can also get more details about the pet cremation industry online.
Three crematoriums passed the testing: Until We Meet Again Pet Memorial Center in North Vancouver, Pet Loss Care Memorial Centre in Victoria and Forever in Peace in Mission. Not every B.C. crematorium was tested.
Two of the facilities where the toy cats were submitted – Alouette Animal Hospital and Capilano Pet Hospital -- caught them before they were sent to the crematorium.
The Pet Cremation Alliance has just launched a major social media campaign about pet owner protection.
It also has details on the private investigation it conducted into pet crematoriums in B.C., and which ones passed and failed the tests.
Watch CTV tonight for the full report from Lynda Steele as she examines why this industry still has no formal oversight, despite widespread evidence of consumer deception.
Originally Published Friday, March 30, 2012 11:23AM PDT Link