Director Amy Finkel knew pet preservation, the subject matter of her new documentary, Furever, could be sensational. But she says she approached the various ways people preserve their pets -– from freeze-drying to mummifying to cloning -– in as nonjudgmental a way as possible, and she thinks she learned a lot from the people she interviewed.
“I’m very transparent with my subjects,” she said. “These people were really teaching me. Like most people, I avoid the topic of death, and I don’t discuss it. I thought they were dealing with the process of death, and I really learned a lot from them.”
So when Shawn and Taylor Hughes freeze-dry their dog, Willow, and push him in a baby stroller, Finkel took care to be respectful of their way of dealing with their grief.
“I can be judgmental if it seems like people have a massive disconnect with reality, but I rarely encountered that,” Finkel said. “For most people, memorialization offered them an enormous amount of relief and comfort, and they understood their pet was dead.”
Finkel said the one method of memorialization she does have a hard time with is cloning. “I don’t really believe in it,” she said. “There’s a host of things wrong with it, and I’m a huge rescue advocate, but I couldn’t be unbiased about all of it and then stick it to cloning.”
In the film, Peter Austin Onruang, who runs a website with tips on how to clone your pet, My Friend Again, talks about going to Korea to get two clones of his dog, Wolfie. One of the few people in the world to have cloned a dog, Onruang says his defense of cloning often draws laughter from audiences. Finkel finds that absurd. “People are going to argue that we should not play God,” Onruang said. “If God had intended us to die, he would not have given us brains to figure out how to prolong life.”
Growing up, Finkel said she got extremely attached to her pets –- dogs as well as rats, newts, and gerbils –- and had a difficult time when they passed away.
“It didn’t change as I aged,” she said. “Like most people, I think, I was conditioned to understand death by my parents, and my parents were atheists, and there was no discussion of souls. So I wondered if that was part of it.”
So when Finkel read a newspaper article about Mac’s Taxidermy in Pennsylvania, where the owner freeze-dries animals for their owners, she paid him a visit. And what she found was a surprise. Mac might be some people’s stereotype of a redneck, with tattoos, long hair, and a Harley, but Finkel, now a good friend of his, says there’s much more to him.
“He’s one of smartest, most sensitive people I’ve ever met,” she said. “He’s so great with his subjects. That’s what originally struck me watching him interact with them. He’s very artistic, and he is so incredibly understanding with the pet lovers and treats them with such concern and empathy.”
Along with stories of people who had memorialized their pets, Finkel wanted to include science and sociology. So the film has University of Washington sociologist Pepper Schwartz, a friend of Finkel’s parents in Seattle, offering what Finkel calls “the counterpoint voice” on people’s attachment to their pets.
“The new mantra of the grief business, if you will, is you’re entitled to have your grief as long as you like, and if that tends to be five years, well, it’s your choice,” Schwartz says in the movie. “I think these people haven’t said goodbye in the way they need to say goodbye, and my own sense is, in what universe is that healthy?”
Schwartz has a dog herself, which was important to Finkel. “It’s easy to find a million people who thought these people were crazy, but I wanted someone who understood the human-animal bond,” she said.
The science behind the relationship of people to their pets is key, Finkel said. She interviewed Meg Daley Olmert, author of Made for Each Other: The Human Animal Bond, who talks about the chemical oxytocin and how it’s released when we stroke pets.
“Oxytocin’s main purpose is to create social bonding,” Olmert says in Furever. “What we finally showed is it crosses the mammals-species barrier. Animals release it in us, we release it in them.”
Olmert goes on to talk about the therapeutic benefits of the chemical, which includes lowering heart rate and blood pressure and reducing stress. She urges people to understand the grief of their friends or family members who have lost a pet.
“They’re not crazy they thought it was their baby; they’re not crazy that their heart is broken,” she said. “It runs on a very real, extremely powerful chemistry.”
More than 60 percent of Americans have pets, and they spent a total of nearly $53 billion on them last year. In the film, Finkel says she wanted to explore the sociological evolution of pets and how they’ve become family members, along with the stigma attached to some forms of grief. She felt strongly about including the sociology as well as the science in Furever.
“Without that kind of context, there would have been no gravity to it,” Finkel said. “I love the show Nova, and I could watch scientist talking heads for hours. I told people I wanted it to be half Nova and half quirky character driven. For me, without the science, it becomes a reality TV show.”
Official Furever documentary trailer, spring 2013 from Amy Finkel on Vimeo.
Furever plays at the SF Indie Doc Fest at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Saturday, June 15, and Thursday, June 20. Check the Furever website for other screening dates.
Read more on grieving and preservation: