Freakonomics: The dangers of pet cremation

This week’s Freakonomics podcast was an interesting investigative journalism piece that delved into the practice of pet cremation, but for whatever reason it didn’t actually look much at the economics behind the industry, so I would like to expound on that a bit. If you would like to listen to the podcast first, you can do so here: http://freakonomics.com/2014/12/11/the-troubled-cremation-of-stevie-the-cat-a-freakonomics-radio-rebroadcast/

In the podcast they interviewed one animal mortician who, using a private investigator, discovered that his competitors weren’t actually returning an individual pet’s ashes to their human. In short, people were signing up for individual cremations (where the animal is cremated alone, its ashes gathered into an urn and delivered to the human) as opposed to group cremations (which are cheaper for the crematoriums to perform) where the animal is cremated as part of a larger group, but the crematoriums were actually returning ashes that were merely scooped from the group cremation. Gruesome, I know, but every pet owner is going to have to deal with these issues and it’s best to do so now when our animals are healthy so that we don’t have to when we’re mourning.

According to undercover tests he performed, he alleges that remains returned by other crematoriums did not match the animals delivered. One method he used was lacing the deceased animal with a chemical marker which was not present in the ashes returned to him. The other method was using a realistic toy animal stuffed with meat and oil, but no bones. The samples returned had bones in it, indicating another animal’s (probably more than one) remains were in his urn. The Freaknomics people decided to do their own version of this experiment and sent three different stuffed toy animals to three different crematoriums. When they rhetorically asked their audience how many samples would have bones in them, I immediately thought, “All of them.” I was right, but why?

I would imagine that most people’s reactions to this will be, “They’re greedy.” But before settling on this intellectually lazy explanation, let’s fist see if these behaviors can be explained by some rather rudimentary economics. The foundation of economics is basically that people respond to incentives. How do people pick among pet crematoriums? Some options that immediately come to mind are: Price (obviously), customer service (eh), and the level of evidence the crematoriums present that the ashes you are given are in fact your animals. What’s clear is that people clearly don’t demand much evidence as to the identity of the remains. The crematorium could, for example, provide you with an unedited video recording of the process from the moment the animal enters the chamber to the point its remains are deposited in the urn. The upfront cost for establishing this system might cost $500, and the cost to maintain it would be a pittance, and yet it’s not offered. Why? Well obviously customers don’t demand it. Instead they simply give their word, and maybe at first they actually lived up to it. But in a competitive landscape, easy profits can’t be ignored, and it doesn’t seem altogether insane to imagine them thinking, “Ashes are ashes, does it really matter whether people get their animal’s ashes or their own?” That they believe it’s their animal is all that really matters. And in a sense they’re right. If you don’t demand proof, then by definition you don’t care enough to demand proof. Admittedly, this is taking advantage of people in a moment of weakness, but like psychics, clerics, and especially human morticians (if you want to learn more about that, and you’re not particularly squeamish, you can check out this reddit thread: http://www.reddit.com/comments/1kfoy5, just ctrl +f “funeral director”) the temptation to do this appears irresistable. The problem is that there will always be a few bad actors in any field who cut corners and in so doing give themselves a competitive advantage over their peers. When consumers make decisions based primarily on price and are unwilling to do any research or make any demands, even the noble actors in the field must cut the same corners if only to compete.

So what’s the solution? Write your congressman? Appeal to the relevant consumer protection bureau? The subject of their story tried that and even presented them with all the evidence he had gathered. He never heard back, which I’m sure will surprise nobody. Bigger fish to fry right? It’s not like the government exists to serve the individual. But there’s an even simpler solution: just demand proof. Go into the crematorium, ask what procedures they have in place to guarantee the identity of your animal, and if they don’t present you with any, leave. If it’s important to you, let it be known and someone will meet that demand. If this issue isn’t important enough to you, why should you think it would be important enough to anyone else?

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