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“Cremations used to be the rite of passage for new staffers,” Andrea tells me as we walk around the machine. “We were all in our early 20s, so, you know, we thought we were badasses. In winter, we’d lean against the incinerator and smoke cigarettes while it was running to freak new people out.
“You definitely need a sense of humor for this,” she adds, and Andrea has that in abundance. Returning a follow-up call later in the week, she hoots over her cell, “Guess what we’ve got in the van now?” It turns out to be a 115-pound Newfoundland that had been euthanized for aggressive behavior, then exhumed from the owner’s yard and decapitated in order to check the brain tissue for rabies. If that seems grisly, Andrea’s duties as cruelty investigator defy the limits of tolerance. Frequently called out to investigate country squalor at its worst, she relates incidents of sickening routine: starved farm animals, unwanted kittens roasted alive in a burn barrel, or cancerous dogs frozen to the winter ground by their own burst tumors.Not so routine is a recent call to Germantown, where a senile woman in her 90s was removed from a house where dozens upon dozens of handmade coffins filled with dead cats were discovered beneath the knee-high layers of filth, feces, and other cat corpses. The oven’s menace seems to pale in comparison to stories like these, until we look inside.
The incinerator door has been rusted shut, and we have to slam the squealing handles open. The inner brick lining inside has crumbled to dust, and a hole gapes in the center of the floor directly where most of the copses would lie. Looming in the far back are the rib bones of a small animal. Rags of scorched fur still cling to the skeleton.
“We couldn’t finish the cremation because the flooring collapsed,” Andrea informs me with a depressed sigh. “Now there’s no way anyone can get it out. One time, there was a malfunction and a burning body fell through the back of the incinerator into the inner machinery. That could have set the whole incinerator on fire so one of us, a girl, waited until everything was cooled down, then crawled inside the oven and got the body. That really took courage.”
Along with liability and staff safety issues, dangers such as fires and biohazards are why Columbia-Greene retired the oven and now outsources its cremations, yet another strain on a depleted budget that can neither afford to replace the incinerator or have it dismantled and removed by an expert.
Blinking against the mellow September sun, a white dog in an open enclosure silently watches us when we emerge from the passageway. Th e dog is as placid as the chopped fields and brushy hillsides that surround the shelter. Thankful to be among the living again, we’re off to Buddy’s Place.