NBC 7 Investigates found animal bones and remains in a dumpster outside a San Diego-area pet mortuary – the same company accused by a former worker of not fulfilling at-sea burials promised to pet owners.
Rachael Williamson has worked in the pet afterlife industry on and off for the last 10 years. She often forms a strong bond with grieving pet owners.
“The most rewarding part is the stories that they tell about their pets and feeling like I'm helping by taking their beloved pet from a situation where they have to go from body to spirit,” Williamson said
In October 2013, Williamson started working at San Diego Pet Memorial Park doing everything from filing and answering phones to engraving urns.
According to its website, San Diego Pet Memorial Park opened in 1962 to "provide a living memorial to all companion animals." San Diego Pet Memorial offers two types of cremation services: Individual and communal.
In individual cremations, the pet is cremated for a fee then its ashes are returned to its owner. If you choose a communal or group cremation, the remains are cremated and according to their website, the ashes are scattered at sea.
Williamson says while working at San Diego Pet Memorial she learned some startling information from another employee.
She was told that group cremations were not being scattered at sea, but thrown into a dumpster in order to save money.
“His words to me were, ‘it's not like they wanted their pets back anyways,’ and I was appalled by that,” Williamson said. “And I asked him, ‘Well do you at least process them first? And he said ‘no’ they just put them in the dumpster.”
Experts that work in the aftercare industry told NBC 7 Investigates once an animal is cremated it is reduced to mostly bone. It is then put through a grinder, called "processing" which crushes up the bone into an ash-like texture. After this second step, the animals are reduced entirely to an ash-like substance.
Williamson confronted the park's manager, Mick Palermo. She says he denied it and told her group remains were not being put in the dumpster.
So NBC 7 Investigates staked out the Memorial Park's dumpster, which sits at the top of a long driveway. We watched a driver from the park empty out the trash then we looked at it ourselves.
NBC 7 found a mix of trash, pet tags labeled "group cremation", dog collars, toys, blankets, and what appeared to be ash and burned animal bones.
We took those remains to San Diego State University, where two forensic archaeologists examined everything closely.
Arion Mayes, an SDSU Bio-archaeologist asked, “First of all, is it bone? And yes. It is clearly bone. The next question is, is it human? And yes I could say it was definitely not human remains.”
The team determined that what we found in the dumpster were the remains of at least two dogs.
“Certainly the minimum number of individuals is two and your question is could it be more? Yes it could be more,” Mayes said.
Chris Morgan, the archaeologist that worked with Mayes said, “Certainly there could be other kinds of animals there or different species.”
NBC 7 emailed Mick Palermo, the manager at San Diego Pet Memorial Park, asking for an interview and response to the allegations.
On Jan. 9, he responded saying he and his family had just been through a personal tragedy and that since June, he had "not been on my A game."
He invited me to inspect the dumpster.
"True, we haven't been taking ashes out to sea for a while and are just storing them until we get someone to take them out for us," Palermo wrote.
He did agree to an interview and to show NBC 7 the stored remains. But, the night before our interview, Palermo sent NBC 7 an email, saying he had spoken with the owner of San Diego Pet Memorial Park and they decided to cancel the interview.
Their "back-logged communal remains" - the ones we were told we could see for ourselves - had been "taken out to sea" that day by a private company. He said he would be using their "services for now."
Williamson said, “If I found out my pet had been put in a dumpster, I would be angry. Not only is it defrauding the public, it's desecrating the memory of these pets.”
After a few weeks, Williamson stopped working at San Diego Pet Memorial Park.
She said she didn't want to work there anymore. Mick Palermo told me they let her go.
“I'm not trying to punish anybody. I'm not trying to get back at anybody. I'm just hurt by this going on because this is an industry that I loved working in. They're tarnishing the industry,” Williamson said.
NBC 7 checked and it is not illegal to throw away animal bones, ashes or other remains.
We spoke to the San Diego County Veterinarian, who said if animal remains do not contain a health risk to humans, they can be thrown away in a dumpster and ultimately taken to a landfill.
A spokesperson from the International Association of Pet Cemeteries, which is made up of members in the pet aftercare industry, also told us pet cemeteries and crematories are not regulated by any state or federal agency.