Shanghai has rite stuff for grieving pet owners

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 March, 2005, 12:00am

Shanghai's pet-obsessed nouveaux riches are now finding ways to pamper their cats and dogs - in death.

With beauty treatments and tailored clothes for pets all the rage in the city, it did not take long for businesses to start offering services for the afterlife, such as elaborate funerals and even taxidermy to preserve the memories of loyal pets.

Out at the Ling Kong Pet Cemetery, fresh flowers and chew toys are placed beneath the headstone of the newest arrival 'Coco Baby', a chihuahua that died in January.

'The owners cried,' Ling Kong Dog Services employee Tang Liang said as he picked his way between the carefully groomed plots of the graveyard near Shanghai's international airport.

Ling Kong is one of the few pet cemeteries on the mainland, with another in Beijing.

The private company originally offered dog training, but added a full-range of mortuary services - ranging from pick-up in a mini-van hearse to reconstruction for pets disfigured in accidents - after realising the potential of the new business.

Shanghai has at least 600,000 canines and the market for pet-dog care and accessories is forecast to grow to more than US$700 million by 2008.

Since the pet cemetery opened in October, the company has cremated or interred 60 pets, mainly dogs. But entrance to doggie heaven does not come cheap: cremation packages can cost up to 6,400 yuan and burial as much as 8,500 yuan.

The cremation package includes an urn and photograph of the pet with the option of taking the ashes home or storing them at the cemetery. Burial includes a casket in a group or single plot, leased for 20 years.

'I would prefer burial over cremation despite the expense because I can visit the grave,' said dog owner Li Li , a sales assistant for a Japanese machinery company.

Even the local government has entered the business, though more out of concern for public health than profit.

Shanghai opened an in-town collection centre for the city's animal crematorium in January. The city charges only 5 yuan to dispose of animals, but pet hospitals commonly mark up the service to at least 100 yuan.

'I have seen many young ladies crying and reluctant to leave here. Some even want us to burn their pets with paper money and sausages,' collection centre staff member Cai Xianhua said.

One in five people using the centre want to keep the ashes of their pets. The demand has prompted a company under the Shanghai Agriculture Commission to sell ceramic urns for 150 yuan.

Tang Shihua , a fifth-generation taxidermist and an instructor at Shanghai Teachers' University, offers an alternative. For as little as 200 yuan, depending on the size, he will stuff your dog or cat.

'Dogs, cats, birds, turtles, I can do anything with skin,' Mr Tang said. His ancestors learned the craft from a British official serving in China in the 1800s who wanted to preserve his game trophies.

Mr Tang has worked his magic on dozens of pets, everything from the beloved budgie of a colleague to a rare tortoise, whose owner stored the body in the refrigerator for two years.

With 20 years' experience, Mr Tang boasts he can finish a bird in half an hour and a small animal in half a day. Preserving domesticated animals is a new line of work for Mr Tang, who is more used to preparing specimens for scientific research or museums.

He does not advertise his services, relying on word of mouth, as he believes he is just trying to help people in their time of grief.

'We're not doing business. We're helping people. They love their pets so much, they don't want to throw them away,' he said.

Additional reporting by Lillian Yang