Amy Finkel with 11-year-old Derbis, a Boston terrier, who, though blind,
finds her way to Finkel’s parents’ bed each night. (Photo courtesy of Amy Finkel)

 
PULLMAN, Wash. – Brooklyn, N.Y. filmmaker Amy Finkel flicked the ON switch of her video camera at Washington State University last week and aimed the lens at her subject, a scientist with the College of Veterinary Medicine. Behind the scientist and to his left was the skeleton of a cow. On his right was a preserved, partially dissected horse.
Not your usual backdrop for an interview. But then again, Finkel’s isn’t your usual film topic.

Artificial eyes used in freeze-dried and
taxidermied pets. (Photo courtesy of Finkel)
In her forthcoming “Furever,” Finkel examines what an increasing number of pet-lovers are doing with their four-legged friends’ bodies after they die – ranging from storing their ashes inside necklace pendants to freeze-drying, mummification and even cloning.
Which leads to the bigger issue of how pet loss has gone from a hush-hush affair to mourning that involves Hallmark cards, Internet memorials, support groups and displaying a stuffed Fido or Fluffy in the living room.
It’s part of a transformation under way in American culture, said Finkel, a Seattle, Wash. native who teaches documentary filmmaking at the Parsons New School for Design in New York City.
Animal passion
“Pets have evolved from being relegated to the backyard to being welcomed inside the bedroom,” Finkel said. “We have developed a deeper bond with our animals.”
To better understand this bond, the 35-year-old filmmaker traveled to WSU’s veterinary college, nationally recognized for blending human skills with science skills, where she spent two days interviewing professors, researchers and students.
 
“I was shocked and bowled over by how caring they are when it comes to pets and how much the communications end is emphasized to students as being important,” Finkel said.
 
“We know people love their pets, and yet, so little attention has been paid to helping them with their grief after they die,” she said. “Your dog dies, you go to work with puffy eyes and you’re almost mocked.”
Why have pets moved to the center of our lives? In a fragmented and tense world, they provide a constant source of unconditional love and support. But there’s another reason, as Finkel learned during her visit.
Overturning a centuries-old belief that animals don’t have feelings, science is revealing that they’re more like humans than we recognize.
 
Ha-ha factor
Inside WSU’s Worthman Anatomy Museum at McCoy Hall, Finkel peered through her camera’s viewfinder at professor and neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, who has pioneered work in penetrating the emotional feelings of animals.
 
Jaak Panksepp (Photo by Becky Phillips, WSU)
Several years ago, he made national news when he found that playing rats emit gleeful chirping sounds (outside the range of human perception) that appear to have an ancestral relationship to human laughter. Tickling the rats provoked the same response.
Instinctual animal emotions – ranging from sadness and fear to maternal attachment and a desire to play – are similar to those in humans, Panksepp told her. They are ancient responses that have helped mammals subsist and thrive.
“When we better understand their emotions, we can develop scientific knowledge about our own,” he said, looking toward the camera. “We will have a better world.”
Students learn vet care and compassion
 
Finkel also filmed WSU licensed counselor Kathy Ruby, who trains veterinary students to work the Pet Loss Hotline and teaches a bereavement class. Since the hotline was launched 12 years ago, trained students have answered thousands of calls – and more recently emails – from around the country and from other continents.
“The students I talked to were very enthusiastic about learning the compassion side of veterinary care,” observed Finkel. “It seems the school is a perfect model – that they understand how humans have an immense capacity to love their pets.
 
“What happens when it’s time to grieve and let go?” she said. “That’s what my film will explore.”
 
Finkel hopes to have “Furever” completed within a year. The project is being sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts.