April 28, 2010 11:45 AM

When a handyman came to Deborah Rosa’s house to replace a bathroom counter, he spotted her wirehaired fox terrier, Lexi, lying calmly on a bedroom chair and commented on how quiet she was. If only he knew that Lexi died about four years ago.

To memorialize her beloved dog, Rosa had Lexi freeze-dried, a process that removes the moisture from tissue and therefore prevents decay.

“The pain was so great when I lost her,” Rosa says of Lexi. Now, “her spirit is in heaven and her body is with me.”

Freeze-drying is an alternative to burial or cremation. Rosa, a retired science teacher from Saco, Maine, heard about freeze-drying when Lexi was elderly and ill.

“I thought: This is my answer,” she tells PEOPLEPets.com. “I would rather see Lexi’s body than go to a gravesite and look at earth or a bottle of ashes. I can wake up and say, ‘Hi, Lexi,’ kiss her and pet her hair.” Lexi is memorialized at the website lexiliveson.com.

When it comes to animal preservation, taxidermy springs to mind. But that involves skinning an animal and stretching the hide over a mold. Freeze-drying removes moisture through a vacuum process, and, done well, preserves an animal much more realistically.

A handful of companies in the U.S. currently offer freeze-drying services. Rosa chose Anthony Eddy’s Wildlife Studio of Slater, Mo. His customers are so attached to their pets they cannot bear to let them go, he says. “It seems to give them comfort to have that pet back in their presence,” he tells PEOPLEPets.com.

Customers, Eddy says, typically do not have children. Some refer to their pet as their soulmate. Many come from non-rural areas, too. “If you have a farm, you are used to life and death,” says Eddy, himself a former farmer and teacher, who likes to hunt and collect animal specimens.

The preserved pets are usually elderly, often dying of cancer or heart failure. “They have been with their owner for a long time,” Eddy says.

What an owner needs to know when faced with a pet’s impending death: Be prepared. The owner (or a veterinarian) must place the pet in a freezer within hours, lest the body begin to decompose. (At the very least, the body should be refrigerated, which buys a day or two.) It is not possible to dig up a buried pet and then salvage the body.

The pet should be wrapped in a blanket or towel and secured in a plastic bag, with the legs pulled in so the animal fits in a rectangular cooler. Eddy, who requires a 50 percent deposit, sends out a cooler kit to his customers.

The price for freeze-drying is steep. A sleeping cat with closed eyes costs around $900. A large dog can be more than $3,000. The process takes six months to a year.

People sometimes include the pet’s collar or bed, Eddy says. One woman sent the basket from the top of the refrigerator, where her cat always slept.

It’s inevitable that some people find it creepy, weird or crazy to have a pet freeze-dried. There’s also a lot of curiosity, Eddy says.

Most customers don’t acquire another pet, says Lessie Calvert, Eddy’s shop manager. “They want a pet that is going to act like that pet did, and they can’t find one,” she says. One customer adopted a new cat and was disappointed, complaining the new cat didn’t act like the old one.

As for Deborah Rosa, whose will decrees that Lexi’s body will be cremated along with hers, she didn’t replace the treasured terrier. “I promised Lexi she was my one and only,” she says, “and I meant it.”

What do you think of freeze-drying a beloved pet? Tell us your thoughts in the comments below.

See more ways to memorialize your pets on PEOPLEPets.com:
Ashes to…Art? Painter Uses Remains for Pet Portraits
Fur Real! Knit a Keepsake Made from Your Pet’s Real Fur

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