Some privately owned pet cremation businesses in B.C. are taking advantage of their grieving customers in the name of profit by charging for individual cremations, but returning generic animal ashes instead.
Six crematoriums on Vancouver Island and Metro Vancouver failed a recent undercover test of their procedures. In each case, the facility returned the wrong remains.
The investigation was paid for 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.
The tests were conducted by several retired RCMP members, including Ivan Chu of Lions Gate Investigations. Chu is a former major crimes investigator with over 30 years of policing experience.
During the investigation, an undercover operator would walk into a veterinary clinic and ask the staff person on duty for a private cremation of a pet.
Pet owners pay a premium for private cremations, where an animal is placed on its own inside a crematorium and returned in a special urn. The service can cost up to $300, depending on the vet clinic used.
This varies from a segregated or partitioned cremation, where animals are separated by bricks or space, and some residual commingling of ashes does occur in the cremation. Communal or group cremations are also typical, where all types of animals are cremated together and ashes are not returned to the family.
Segregated and communal burns cost much less than the private cremations, and sometimes include roadkill.
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.
The robotic components of the stuffed animal were removed and five pounds of hamburger meat were placed inside of the cavity of the toy. The toy cats were then frozen and taken to vet offices to be transported for private cremations.
"Because there's no bone material -- we're going to ask for a private cremation and if we get anything back it'll be fraudulent," Chu said.
The urns were ready for pick up after several days. The contents of the urns were then taken to the University of Victoria to be analyzed by senior archeologist Becky Wiggen.
Each analysis yielded many pieces of bone from multiple animals, something that shouldn't happen whatsoever, as what was brought in for cremation was a toy cat with no bones.
Wiggen said she didn't even need a microscope to be able to identify the animal bones present in some samples.
Chu said the test results constitute a "deceptive consumer fraud" because the service that was paid for – a private cremation – was not honoured.
In each failed case, a toy cat stuffed with ground beef was returned as an urn full of bones.
"It's shocking," he said, adding that they were troubled that the majority of clinics and crematoriums didn't open the packages beforehand to check the physical contents inside.
"As an investigator [you think] first there's a fraud going on…and secondly, what an easy way to do something diabolical."
Chu said while the majority of pet owners trust their vet to make all the arrangements for cremation, they don't realize that the industry is completely unregulated.
Cat lover Rebeka Breder had her beloved tabby Leonard privately cremated at one of the businesses that failed the undercover test. She believed a private cremation meant it would be her animal alone in the chamber.
"When we got our ashes back, we didn't even question it. We didn't even assume that it wasn't Leonard," she told CTV's Steele on Your Side.
Breder was shocked to learn pet owners like her were unknowingly given back urns full of generic animal bone.
"I couldn't believe it. I was absolutely shocked. I was disgusted. I felt completely betrayed."
Three crematoriums passed the testing. These are: 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.
Staff at one clinic called one of the private investigators back personally to tell him that what was cremated was not an animal.
"And in order to protect us and the veterinarian clinic, RCMP were contacted and they have your remains. It wasn't an animal. It had absolutely no bone structure to it," a staff member told them in a recorded telephone conversation.
Three crematoriums passed the test, returning the remains of the toy cats – which was essentially just a few screws and a pinch of dust.
But six other crematoriums in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island failed, returning urns filled with animal bone. The private investigators told RCMP, but the force declined to investigate.
Chu said there isn't enough interest by Mounties to investigate what he believes is a serious consumer deception.
"Unfortunately, resources with the police are limited in terms of fraud investigations, and one of the answers we got back was ‘they got bigger fish to fry,'" he told CTV's Steele on Your Side.
There are no laws governing pet cremation standards anywhere in the world, except in Illinois.
A Manitoba MLA presented a bill in 2007 about regulating pet crematoriums after allegations of negligence at a facility near La Salle, but it was never passed.
Domestic Animal Cremation was shut down after health investigators found freezers full of dead animals and other deceased animals lying on countertops.
Last year, A U.K. woman who ran a crematorium was jailed for eight months after being caught dumping the bodies of her customers' pets in a field.
Just under half of Canadians are pet owners, according to Statistics Canada.
Watch CTV News tonight for a full report from Lynda Steele, including a look at the dramatic undercover footage. And watch tomorrow as Steele on Your Side goes undercover for its own testing at the Vancouver pound.
Have your say: What do you think of the test results?