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Saturday, 3 February, 2001, 01:22 GMT
A preservation revolution for pets
Mike Mculloch of Mac's Taxidermy
The freeze dried pets business is booming for Mike Mculloch
By the BBC's Jonny Dymond

There isn't a whole lot to Fort Loudon, Pennsylvania - stretched out along a length of highway, there's a supermarket, a garage and car wash and a lousy diner.

Next to the supermarket, a squat building covered with wooden boards has a pile of animal skins mouldering outside.

It may seem surprising, but this could be the site of a revolution in pet preservation.

A stuffed moose
Mike Mculloch's shop is decorated with rack after rack
Inside Mac's Taxidermy, Mike Mculloch labours under rack after of buck and deer antlers. As the hunting season reaches a climax, there is a steady flow of customers clutching heads to be gutted, boned and mounted as trophies.

In Pennsylvania, 1.8 million hunting licences are granted every year.

Freeze dried fido

But over in the corner of the store there's something else going on.

Two freezers are joined in the middle by tubing and a vacuum pump. And inside the two freezers, what were once pets are now being slowly dried out. Mike Mculloch can hardly believe the line of business he has entered into.

Mac's Taxidermy
Mike's unassuming shop, scene of the preservation revolution
"Never in my wildest dreams did I think this would happen", he chuckles. "I never started this taxidermy business to do dogs and cats. I bought the freeze dryers because we do small animals in them, that are very difficult, that are hard to skin and do the conventional way.

"And then this all started out about five years ago with a friend of a friend who asked me if I could help him out with his dog," he said.

There's not much difference in the finished product between a stuffed animal and a freeze-dried one, Mike says.

A bargain at twice the price

But stuffing is labour intensive for small animals; for a moose or a buck you gut and bone the head and neck and then stretch the hide over a polyurethane frame.

But those frames aren't made for smaller animals - so the bone and muscle structure needs to be recreated - and that means the price goes to around $2,500.
A taxidermy mold
Larger animals can be mounted using molds

Which is where the freezer comes in. Freeze-drying - dropping the temperature of the animal to the point where water turns to a gas and then drawing the gas off with a vacuum pump - costs around one fifth of the price of stuffing.

And customers are queuing up, with pets coming over from all over the States - so far he has taken in pets from Texas, California and Florida.

Mike is the first to admit that he is surprised by the reaction

"I don't understand them," he says, adding, "but then I don't understand people paying $2,000 to bury them and put a headstone up as well. It's a big business in this country - they cremate their dogs and cats and they spend three or four thousand dollars for an urn to put them in."

Business is booming

Business is very good at Mac's Taxidermy; new freezers are on order and new investors want to set up a whole new pet freeze-drying company.

The freeze drying machine
Mike Mculloch stands next to the freeze drying machine
Along with the success have come odd requests. One man in Ohio has asked, in return for a sum which Mike Mculloch will only describe as "very substantial", that his entire body be frozen. Mike is still pondering that one.

Profit margins are up and so far there's little competition on the horizon; other taxidermists just aren't interested.

Mike says he'll probably make more money this year in all the other years he has been in business. Deputise that one thing has changed for the worse - the mood in Mike's shop. It's gone from triumph to tragedy.

"We're used to people coming in here," he says " and they're all excited - they've got a big buck, or a bear or a mountain lion, and they're all excited. It's completely different now - the people come in with their dogs and cats and they're crying. I understand it but it's a completely different things for us. It's just different."

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