The Troubled Cremation of Stevie the Cat

I like to listen to podcasts while driving and haven’t listened to the one from the Freakonomics guys is a while, so I came upon one from last year and was tempted to skip over when I saw the title was “The Troubled Cremation of Stevie The Cat”. I did a search on “Stevie the Cat” and found no google results from the straight dope.

Within a minute or two it became obvious that the purpose was (partially) to figure out if pet crematories really were giving pets back to the owners and not some random pet or some other non pet like substance. I thought for a second on how I would do the experiment and wasn’t really sure - and I think you need to know a little more to get why and how you’d get scammed. Feel free to pause here and think how you’d do the experiment so you can feel intellectually superior later on :slight_smile:

So basically there are three types of cremation for our purposes:

  1. Group - bunch of pets are cremated together and ashes put in a field or something
  2. Private - pet is put in the crematory by itself and then whatever is left (bone and bone dust) is returned to the owner in an urn
  3. Partioned or Semi Private - pet is put in with other pets, but separated by bricks or something - you might get a little dust returned to you from other pets, but it should be mostly your pet you get back

So the idea was brought to him by a guy who owned a pet crematory and thought the prices his competitors were offering were too low for private cremation for them to make a profit. He hired a private investigator and they conducted two experiments.

First, they added a tracer compound to the pet injected/surgery by a vet. The pets were taken to his competitors for a partioned cremation and three out of eight did not have the expected amount of tracer compound.

Next, they bought two realistic stuffed animal cats and stuffed them with hamburger meat and Cisco and then froze the cat (apparently it is not unusual for people to freeze their dead cats before/waiting cremation) for another partioned cremation to one of their competitors. Now it is important to note that the only thing the survives cremation is bone. There should be nothing left other than a tiny bit of residue - no bones - no creamains. What they got back were two urns full of the approximate amount of cremains for an animal of that size/weight.

So the guys at Freakonomics did their own experiment and sent three fake cats - frozen and stuffed with hamburger meat and Crisco to three different pet crematories for private cremation in two cases and a partioned cremation in the last to three different crematories in New York (not the same State as the first experiment). They got back the full expected amount of cremains as if the cat was real.

In both experiments the cremains were analyzed and appear to be bone and not concrete or something.

So anyway - the reason I am posting this is it made me wonder if what they thought they were testing was a fair test of what the average pet owner should expect.

In the first experiment - we are selecting from a group of eight agencies who the guy thought was cheating. While it turned out some were - it was less than half. It specifically stated he chose people with the low prices (can’t remember if he used the term “improbably” or “impossibly” low). Turns out - in over 50% of the cases they weren’t. Now I am in no way excusing the conduct of the three probably guilty parties - what I am more interested in is the second/third experiments.

Now the pet crematory owner selected his target - presumably based off of someone that had failed the first test. So this isn’t really separate evidence of wrong doing - but additional. I think the two together are somewhat convincing and enough to say (if conducted by a disinterested third party - perhaps more than once - that the crematory is being dishonest).

What struck me was the test that the Freakonomics guys did AND with all their knowledge of humor behavior - what they didn’t say. What struck me is what must have been in the mind of an honest crematory worker - especially in the case of a private cremation.

If you put what you thought was a dead cat in there - opened up the drawer - and bam - no cat. What would you think had happened? I don’t think it would occur to me that someone might have been fucking with me. I wasn’t aware of the frozen cat thing, but even with that - I think I would assume most people would think they couldn’t be tricked by the appearance of a pretend cat. Someone who (and I’m guessing the Freakonomics producers were trying to play the part of grieving cat owner on the phone) gives you a cat for cremation - suddenly is going to get nothing in return. Won’t they be pissed. I mean theoretically this has never happened to them before.

I think the private and semi private cases are different. If you do the semi private - you probably don’t know how much goes from one partition to the next and maybe you think “crap - this cat must have had weak bones - where the fuck is this cat”. Or maybe you think - “damn, did I actually put them in different slots? Did I put one cat on top of another?”.

So I went to the website to read the comments and was glad to see two things: one - lots of people seemed to think the same way I did and two - there weren’t too many people suggesting further ridiculous modifications to the test. Most people thought the tracer test was a more fair test.

To me - the last test is more likely to be - or could be a test of human psychology.

Oh - and if it isn’t clear what my theory is - it is that an otherwise honest crematory worker - upon seeing something they never encountered before would think there was something weird with the cat or that they made a mistake and would take ashes from a different (hopefully group - so as not to take away from ashes of any partioned pets).

Also - what the Freakonomics guys were expecting (more or less) was a call saying “there was something odd with Stevie - I’ve never seen this before, but we have nothing to give you.”

So my questions are:

  1. What percentage of otherwise crematory workers do you think would take ashes from say a group cremation to make up for zero ashes from fake cat Stevie?
  2. Would YOU take ashes from say a group cremation and give them to Stevie’s owner?
  3. If you were doing a private cremation - and say this was your 100th cat. In the 99 previous cases you had put a cat in the drawer - and when the cremation was done - you opened up the drawer and had bone ash which seemed to be more or less in a very predictable amount (one of the comments claimed to be from a crematory worker and claimed there shouldn’t be more than a 2% variance (I think more or less that is what they said) - I find that a little hard to buy, but I know nothing about cremation). Now in comes Stevie and you upon the drawer and there is nothing there. What would you think had happened?

Oh and this reminds me of debates about how honest companies are. I worked for a time that did TV/VCR repair. We could have cheated people but didn’t. If we found nothing wrong - we told people that. We offered a two month warranty on our repairs and we specifically stated it was only for the work we had done. Now often - I’d say 20-25% of the time if someone came back in that time - it wasn’t our repair - it was something different. Despite this - my boss would never charge people. I asked him why and he said “I learned long ago that people won’t believe you. In their minds you were supposed to have fixed their problem and they now have a VCR with another problem. They think we might have cause the problem. We make enough money, we aren’t cheap, so I am more than happy to do some repairs we don’t technically have to keep people happy.”

So my further two questions are:

  1. Have you ever worked at a company that could have cheated people if you wanted to and it would have been hard to detect? I am not talking like McDonalds and shorting people on a McNugget or pocketing a quarter of their change. I am talking places like a crematory or TV/VCR repair where you could charge people for stuff you didn’t do or that they didn’t need.
  2. If so - were they honest?
  1. I would assume pretty much 100% of workers would take some ashes from a group cremains and put it in “Stevie’s” place.
  2. I probably would sub in some group ashes. I would have a difficult time calling up some grieving owner and saying, “Hey… so something happened with your cat and there aren’t any ashes left…” That seems unnecessarily traumatizing plus I would think most owners would assume you fucked up in some fashion.
  3. I don’t know. I’d probably think I screwed up somehow, frankly. Like the ashes got dumped accidentally or something. I don’t think I’d assume people were tricking me - why would they?

(Oh, and I’ve had a number of pets that I’ve had to have put to sleep - short-lived ferrets :frowning: - and always chose group cremation and scattering.)

The other two questions don’t apply to me.

Perhaps they occasionally only have a partial body to cremate, so no or very few remains would not cause concern.

I worked for a bottled water company once. We could have substituted the well water for the more expensive spring water, or even filled it out of the tap for that matter. Never did. But there was the occasional crazy old woman who would insist that we had! Sometimes I think people just want something to bitch about so they have someone to talk to.

I also worked for an automotive fluids blending and packaging company. There were pacific “recipes” to do each blend and samples before during and after would go to the in house lab. They did national, generic, and store brands. It was the first time I ever realized how close cheaper brands are to the advertised ones. Sometimes it’s literally one drop of something inactive like a dye in several hundred thousand gallons of product, and a different label. The only time products were ever substituted were if we had overruns of the better product we’d sometimes package it in the generic label, never the other way though. We could have, but what if it busted someone’s equipment? Many tanks would have to be flushed to slop oil if we accidentally pumped the wrong additive or it was contaminated by condensation, regardless of the expense. I loved that place. Was interesting to learn so many aspects of a manufacturing business, especially for someone in the office end.