I received an interesting email yesterday from a Miami Herald reader needing clarification on a certain point of law: “Is it truly illegal to inter your pet in your back yard?”

I’ve known the answer to that question since I started practicing in Miami-Dade County over ten years ago: YES. According to County regs, no one is to engage in residential burials of domesticated pets. But because the question came attached to a short tale of woe, I was unable to render a simple digital answer.

Here’s the scenario:

This woman’s cat had been euthanized by her regular vet. She had wanted to take Fluffy home to bury (presumably alongside her others), but the hospital’s policy prohibited the relinquishing of remains to an owner. The rationale she was given? It’s illegal to bury an animal in Miami-Dade County.

OK, so here’s where I get my hackles up. A hospital is free to choose any policy it wishes on the issue of remains, but if it’s going to unreservedly take possession of something as emotionally charged as a dead body of a loved one, it should spell things out in writing before the euthanasia.

Rewind…I don’t even think it’s legal to withhold a dead body. After all, vets aren’t deputized by the Miami-Dade Department of Public Works to enforce county laws any more than we’re required to enforce the proper licensing of pets.

What’s more, an owner should be free to take home their pet’s fresh remains for a variety of perfectly legal reasons:

1-I want a post-mortem performed at another hospital.

2-I want to bury her body in another county.

3-I wish to take her directly to the crematorium myself.

4-I want to have her freeze-dried.

These make plenty of sense to me. Who am I to keep the body when the owner wants it? Even if they expressly state that their intention is to bury the pet in their back yard a half-mile away, my only legal and ethical responsibility is to inform them of the laws—not to enforce them by denying them the body.

So in the wake of this question, I went on a mission to…

1-identify the relevant statute,

2-determine the rationale for the law, and

3-establish the legality of denying an owner the possession of a pet’s body.

Predictably, the County turned out to be a maze of phone numbers whose appointed people had lots of efficient voice mailboxes to answer their calls. Public Works laughed and referred me to DERM (the environmental people) who said they only got involved when it came to enforcement. They referred me to the Department of Health, which also found it humorous, but suggested I call Animal Services. Animal Services promptly called it a zoning issue, not an “animal service” directive.

Everyone had a theory on the issue. No one had a statute to show me. Except for zoning. Ever try to deal with your local zoning department? Miami’s is as Byzantine as they come. I gave up at that point.

Finally, I called the Pet Heaven Memorial Park, our friendly neighborhood cremation service. They didn’t know the name or number of the statute handy, either, but they had reason to believe there was no environmental issue at play. In fact, they have a permit to inter animals on their own Miami-Dade County land with restrictions only as to the depth of the plots (two feet) so as not to interfere with any County infrastructure in their diggings. After all, they said, if it were such a big environmental issue Animal Services would be scooping up every dead opossum on every roadside in the county before they could taint our delicate water supply.

Efficient as the private sector proved in this instance (I had the general manager on the phone in seconds), their answers were still foggy on the issue of the law as it pertains to “backyard burials,” as they called it.

After getting nowhere fast, I decided to concentrate my efforts on the issue of whether it’s legal to keep a dead animal when an owner wants it back. I’ve got a call in to an animal welfare attorney…but no answers yet.

The more I consider it, the less likely it seems legally tenable for a vet to withhold a pet’s physical remains. But let’s forget the law for a sec. IMO, it’s just plain unethical to spew policy in the face of a bereaved owner—especially a rule that serves your business interests more than it does your patient’s memory.

As you may already suspect, the cynical me knows why this vet refused her the cat’s remains: Death services are a very profitable domain for the average small animal veterinarian. And while that may seem horribly uncouth to you, but making sure death is done well is a big deal for us. We work hard at it and deserve to be compensated for it. But that doesn’t mean Fluffy should be denied the arms of her owner once she’s dead.

So what am I going to tell this Miami Herald reader? Look for it online the Sunday after next.