When Ben Riggan had to put his pair of 12-year-old Springer Spaniels to sleep, the vet returned them to him in what he calls “glorified trash bags.” That heart-wrenching moment caused Riggan to begin developing an eco-friendly pet burial shell that struck an altogether more appropriate and respectful note.
That was five years ago, and now he’s up and running with the final product, which he calls Paw Pods. Available to fit most domestic pets — from a goldfish to an adult dog — the Paw Pods look a little strange at first. My initial reaction was that they resemble a take-out food container. But Riggan says the look is part of an environmentally-friendly way to give your pet a dignified send off, as the Paw Pods gradually biodegrade.
With National Pet Memorial Day approaching on September 8, we asked Riggan to explain what the Paw Pod experience involves.
Dogster: When did the idea for Paw Pods come to you?
Ben Riggan: It was probably about five years ago when I had to put two of my springer spaniels to sleep. I wanted to bury them on my parents’ property and do it properly and everything. When they euthanized them they brought them out to me in two what they called cadaver bags which were glorified trash bags. So I asked them, “Don’t you guys have a box lying around you could even use?” They said they didn’t, not even a supply box. I told them this is not the way to handle the situation.
So from that I started calling people nationwide and asked them how they returned peoples’ loved family members when something like this happens. They all told me they either used supply boxes they had around, or they used the cadaver bags, which are really just Hefty bags. So we decided to try and come up with an eco-friendly and affordable pet casket and we decided to call it Paw Pods. I didn’t want people having to go through the same experience that I had to with my dogs.
Bubba and Junior were all-stars, they were like my little guys. I’d had them since I was 11 and they passed away when I was 22. They were my first dogs — we had a family dog before that — but it was the first time I was actively having dogs take part in my life.
Where did you end up burying them?
On a hillside out in Michigan, where we run every day. They were hunting dogs and my parents owned 40 acres so I got to bury them on a hillside.
What were the first designs for the Paw Pods?
At first they were paper-pulp and we kinda went that route, and then we realized it wasn’t strong enough. We did about two years of research into not just the design but the type of material to use. They’re made out of bamboo and rice husk.
We had them in a casket shape at one point, but we were really trying to get away from that, especially with little kids. We wanted a more family-friendly version of it — that’s where the name comes in.
How did you test the Paw Pods? Did you literally bury one and then dig it up later?
Yeah, we tested them in multiple ways, including in a lab when it comes to working out their half-life. They will entirely biodegrade over a period of two to five years. It also depends on the soil content, though — with certain types of soil and they way they break things down it can be less than that time frame.
Did you always have the goal of making them environmentally-friendly?
You know, I felt that pets should go back to the Earth, and like the ashes to ashes and dust to dust kinda thing. Your pets never really leave a person while you’re here on the Earth, so we were kinda going in that direction.
If someone wants to paint or add a design to a Paw Pod, is that possible?
First of all, we can make them in any color. We haven’t done so yet, but we do have a goldfish pod that’s shaped like a goldfish and we’re making that in the yellow-gold color, like the cracker. We are going to offer a heart-shaped urn and we’ll have a local artist who will take a picture of your pet and paint that on there for people who want that.
Have you had anyone get in touch with a request to make a bizarre-shaped Paw Pod?
Not yet. We have worked with a number of crematories and there are plenty of urns and caskets out there these days that are crazy, but what we want to offer is something a little more affordable. I’m not saying we won’t get any strange requests in the future, though!
Did it feel more than a little morbid during the years you were working on the prototypes?
No, just because I wanted to make it a great way to honor your loved ones. That was always the mentality. Maybe for people on the outside looking in it could seem a bit morbid, but now with pets becoming more and more a part of the family the whole pet-aftercare part of the industry is growing and people are treating them more like their own children and spouses.
How would you advise someone who needs to break the news to young kids that the family pet is not going to be around for too much longer?
I think just be personal and honest with it. You should definitely never tell your children that the pet ran away ’cause they’ll be very angry when they find out that didn’t happen.
It’s best to approach it head-on and try and explain to them what’s going on with the grieving process. Especially if you get to spend time with the animal before it passes, let them be part of that and come to their own way of grieving with the pet. Tell them that it’s definitely not their fault, ’cause a lot of kids seem to think that it’s their fault which is definitely not the case. There’s also tons and tons of online forums that can be very helpful.
Have you come across any bizarre local laws about where and how you can bury a pet?
There are some in metropolitan areas, like ordnances saying you can’t bury a pet in the ground. Most vets won’t always enforce that, and a lot of people in a city own property outside so they’ll maybe go to a family member or a pet cemetery. There’s a growing number of pet cemeteries opening up and a lot of them are going to be green and environmentally-friendly.
Who’s the Paw Pods spokesdog on your Facebook page?
Oh, that’s my dog, my little man, he’s a Poodle. He’s with me every day; he’s a great dog, the best dog I’ve ever had.
How does he react to the Paw Pods? Does he try and play with them or sit in them?
Well, he was our test dog in March and it was kinda a weird situation! He laid down in them a bit, but he’s a very lackadaisical dog. Obviously he doesn’t know what they are.
Could a Paw Pod double up as a bed?
You know what? When we were at SuperZoo, people were saying why don’t you just put a cushion in there and use it like that? It would be possible.
Finally, what sets Paw Pods apart from other ways to say goodbye to a beloved pet?
I think if you’re going to bury an animal you should bury it in a way that you can return it to the Earth. We’re also from Detroit, and we’re the poster child of this recession. One of the big things we noticed is that not everyone can afford the prices of the pet casket industry — you can get a $2,000 casket! When you add in the cost of cremation — which is $300 for a cat or a full-size dog — you’re really taking advantage of somebody at that point.
We’re trying to sell the experience as much as the product — we also give a seeded leaf so you can have a living memorial with wild flowers.
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