CASPER — In less than two hours, the mortal remains of Harley the dog will be consumed by a fiery cyclone.
Farewell, Harley. You were somebody’s friend.
Casper veterinarians keep freezers on their premises, out of sight. But twice a week, on regular rounds, Angel Companions comes to take the contents out.
These deep freezes seem to fill during the holidays. “Maybe it’s the stress,” Lorran Carlston said.
Lorran and her husband, Steve, care for dead pets.
Vet technicians help load plastic sacks into the covered bed of Lorran’s pickup. Sometimes, when it’s not clear what’s inside, she probes the outline with her fingertips.
“It’s got some teeth on it,” she says. “It’s called Patches, that’s all I know.”
A young woman helps load an uncovered German shepherd. Lorran wonders why it’s not wrapped. But it doesn’t matter much. He’s a communal.
“Communal” is not a bad word, though it does connote a lower status. People with little money often choose it. These animals end up in unmarked graves. But it’s better than the landfill.
Lorran has never seen the dead animal pit. “I don’t want to see it. I can close my eyes and imagine what it’s like.”
As Lorran drives, her cell phone blares a heavy metal tune of Rob Zombie. It might be Steve calling, or more likely, her daughters, who check in frequently. “Have your sister pick out some clothes. Because you need to go a little better than jeans and a T-shirt.”
“Love you,” she signs off.
This time, it’s a veterinarian’s office in Douglas. A last-ditch therapy will be tried; some dog will live another day.
A clasp, securing pictures of Lorran’s girls, drops from the visor. “Never drive faster than your guardian angel can fly,” an inscription reads.
So just how fast do angels fly?
• • •
The work of Angel Companions Pet Cemetery and Crematorium usually occurs near day’s end. Both Steve and Lorran hold regular jobs — he at Energy Laboratories, she at the Casper-Alcova Irrigation District.
Lorran typically makes rounds and performs cremations; Steve digs graves and does the burying.
A cemetery came first, partly inspired by a Casper veterinarian with many critters of her own. It sits on 10 acres west of Casper, an officially zoned, government-sanctioned burial ground.
“We have horses. We have dogs and cats. I think there might be a rabbit down there,” Lorran says. “We don’t have any cows.”
Horses from a program for handicapped kids, and a police dog’s granite headstone. Someone planted a tree, which struggles in the wind. Seashells mark a grave for a beloved cat.
Some people visit on Memorial Day. For others, one goodbye suffices. Once, a traveling salesman called in the middle of the night. His dog had died in a motel room. He paid for a burial and headstone: “Dusty, 1994-2005.” He hasn’t been heard from since.
For a while, Steve hauled pets for cremation to Cheyenne, then Sheridan or Worland, sometimes in ones and twos, sometimes by the truckload.
Three weeks after their marriage in 2005, Steve and Lorran bought their own crematory. “It was kinda like a wedding present,” she says.
Angel Companions makes pickups at several veterinarian clinics in Casper, Douglas and Glenrock, or directly from homes. Remains from private cremations often are personally returned, along with tips for coping when a pet dies. “Am I crazy to hurt so much?” an accompanying handout asks.
Lorran hands a blue-flowered urn, filled with ashes to a distraught man. Locks of Bruno’s hair are mounted on the lid.
“That dog was the best soccer player I ever knew,” Robert Ayers says. “He’d take that ball and hit it back and forth between his feet all the way up and down the yard. That’s why there’s no grass.“
Eighteen years, Robert says wistfully. “He’s my best buddy. I’ve been settin’ here all day thinkin’ about him.
“They’re the best people you know.”
• • •
Rob Zombie screeches a familiar ringtone. A frantic woman reports that a dog called Cocoa has passed away. And she has no money.
“No, that’s fine. We can work out payments. That’s not a problem,” Lorran reassures her.
How about postdating a couple of checks to cover the bill? She has no checking account, either. “We’ll work something out.”
So the remains of Cocoa will be in limbo. “I don’t like to hold the pet away from owners,” Lorran says. “But yet, we are a business.”
On another day, assurance of payment is made; Cocoa is consigned to the crematory.
But after the fire, confusion. It’s no longer clear who speaks for Cocoa. She will be accorded a common burial, and a bad debt forgiven.
Lorran seems resigned.
“It happens,” she said. “Not too often, but it happens.”
• • •
Harley the dog rides to the crematory in the company of a little ferret, wrapped in a red shirt.
The cremation unit roars to life. A propane afterburner twists fire into a vortex, spinning from the top downward. After a few minutes, a heavy door slides shut. The main flame ignites, cycling between 1,590 and 1,640 degrees. The chamber gets so hot, the bricks glow.
“It’s like looking at the sun,” Lorran says.
Time and temperature are related to body weight. A 55-pound dog will be in for less than two hours.
While the chamber’s still hot enough to start charcoal, Lorran can sweep out ash and unburned bone, using long-handled implements and welders’ gloves.
When remains have cooled, Lorran waves a magnet through them, checking for odd bits metal like surgical pins. Then it’s all ground to fine powder. Residue color is related to body fat; gray ash of a large dog resembles bentonite clay.
Fire consumes more than pets. A puppy went through with a basket and glass angel bobbles; favorite toys or leashes, and family photographs, burn, too.
Death sometimes falls hardest on men. Overcome with grief, one could not accompany his wife to the door to accept their pet’s remains.
Final disposition is recorded in a log. The first was on 4-14-05, a 60-pound dog with no name. Animal friends are noted by the hundred, scribed in hand-written notes. But no telling of how much joy, and sorrow, each entry truly accounts.
• • •
The origins of Harley the dog were as uncertain as his pedigree. He showed up unexpectedly in Linda Terrell’s life. Judged by the grayness on his muzzle, he might have been 7 or 8 -in dog years, already approaching middle age.
Harley was a boxer, mostly, and who could say what else. He made playmates of light and shadow, indulged young children and defended small dogs from rowdy cohorts. He loved walks; it was a good day when Linda slipped on her tennis shoes.
But a propensity to roam was his undoing.
Sometimes, Harley insisted on going out the front. Usually, he returned soon thereafter. One evening, he did not.
Linda found Harley sitting on a sidewalk. It was as though he had been waiting. Harley lay down, then could not get up. A passing Samaritan carried him to the car.
Harley bled inside, his lung and kidney lacerated. Most likely hit in traffic, the veterinarian concluded, but who could say for certain? Heroic efforts could not save him; Harley died, on his own, but not alone.
Linda faulted herself, but finding fault was pointless. It would not bring Harley back. At least, she hoped her memories might be anchored to something tangible; perhaps cremation could accomplish that much.
When Linda’s father died, his body was cremated and his remains returned in a cardboard box.
“So when I went to get Harley’s ashes, I didn’t know what to expect.” she says. “And when I got what I got, with that little tin and everything done the way it was done, I was very impressed.
“I thought, ‘My dog, who was a wonderful dog, got treated with much more respect and dignity than my father had.’ ”
Sometimes, Linda thinks she hears dog tags jingle, or a familiar gait upon the steps.
Perhaps, it’s just an echo.
“There’s a real void,” she says. “My house is pretty empty without him.”
• • •
Rob Zombie heralds an incoming call.
“Hello? I’m going to deliver a pet. I sent you another picture. The only one I found on eBay. Don’t give up, we’ll keep looking.”
Then another stop, Lorran driving with one hand on the steering wheel and the other in her pocket.
Lorran is plain-spoken, a Wyoming native and sometimes a bit gruff. But thinking of Misty the Malamute brings a momentary tear. “I never really felt like I got to say goodbye to her,” she says.
A wolf-like countenance of Misty the Malamute flickers on Lorran’s cell phone. A golden vial filled with her ashes dangles from the rear-view mirror and catches fragments of the day’s last light.
In a way, Angel Companions seems like something else merely expressed as business. One way or another, it’s mostly about family.
As a youngster, Lorran had a lamb named Bobby. And there was Billy the bullsnake, who much to her mother’s dismay, wrapped himself around the heating pipes.
Lorran and her sister dressed Lamby Pie in doll clothes and pushed the dog in a stroller. On the ranch, they had blue heelers. A hound called Mandy knew purse meant ride, so she would dig out Lorran’s handbag and haul it to the car.
Steve had a black kitten, then a beagle, followed by dogs and cats with names like Dusty, Chelsie Wausee Wells and the Rubber Pup, stretching across all the changes of a lifetime.
Often, Angel Companions never meets the people of the dead pets. But they know them, just the same.