MEMPHIS (WMC TV) - Environmental regulators in Mississippi said they intend to investigate a Memphis-based pet cemetery owner for cremating animal remains without a permit.
"I actually don't have a license," admitted Travis Wright, owner and operator of Pinecrest Pet Cemetery, 5100 Hacks Cross Rd. "We use an incinerator out of town."
Wright would only say his incinerator is somewhere in Mississippi. "I don't tell anybody where my incinerator is," he said.
"He needs to tell us what he constructed," said Harry Wilson, chief of permitting for the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). Wilson said Wright would have to have a permit either to construct a pet crematory or to operate one in Mississippi.
"We must make sure he is using equipment that meets air emission standards," Wilson said.
The Action News 5 Investigators maintain an archive of stories on Wright and Pinecrest Pet Cemetery that spans 13 years. The stories include multiple complaints from clients about the cemetery's conditions and about allegations that Wright breached their burial contracts when he would not produce their pets' headstones.
"When I go out there I have a horrible time finding my little plot that we bought," said Dot Kopacek of Parkway Village, East Memphis, in a 2007 interview with Action News 5's Ben Watson.
"I hope if this keeps one person from burying their pet here and going through what I've been going through, this will all be worth the effort," said Marsha Parrish of Collierville, TN, in a 2006 interview with Action News 5's Anna Marie Hartman.
In 1997, the Memphis-Shelby County Health Department fined Wright $29,500 for the improper disposal of animal carcasses. The department's pollution control regulators determined Wright was responsible for the dumping of nearly 50 dog carcasses in a private field, according to the case record. An Olive Branch, MS, animal clinic had released the carcasses by contract to Pinecrest Pet Cemetery.
According to the record, Wright settled with the department on a $2,000 fine to be paid in $500 increments. But his first payment was more than 80 days late, voiding the settlement and reinstating the original five-figure fine.
The record's unclear whether Wright ever paid more than $500.
According to MDEQ engineer Dallas Baker, Wright applied for a Mississippi permit to construct a pet crematory in 1998. Baker said the agency determined Wright's application was incomplete because it did not provide adequate information about "stack testing" -- the amount and type of his crematory's emissions.
Baker said MDEQ sent three letters to Wright, requesting clarification of his emissions plans. Baker said Wright ignored each letter. MDEQ subsequently withdrew Wright's permit application.
"I guess I've disobeyed the rules all my life," Wright said. "I guess I'm a maverick or whatever you want to call it."
According to the case record, Wright's cremation services crossed paths with Shelby County Sheriff's deputies and pollution control investigators in 2003. They inspected Wright's mother's home at 4959 Hacks Cross Rd. to find "...a small dead animal incinerator with numerous bones of a large mammal on the grill of the animal incinerator."
The record said "the incinerator was connected to a 1977 Chevrolet Pickup Truck (with an) expired Tennessee Tag."
"People need to stop paying this man to barbecue their animals," said one of Wright's clients, who asked not to be identified out of fear for her safety.
The client said she had to arrange to have her dog's body exhumed from its grave at Pinecrest after she learned the details of Wright's cremations in the health department's case record.
"To me, it was like digging up a child and disturbing that child's burial," she said.
Wright and his cemetery hold a "F" rating with the Better Business Bureau of the Mid-South. The BBB's record revealed six complaints in the last three years regarding contract, delivery and service issues. Two were resolved. Wright did not respond to the remaining four.
"One fella said, 'They delivered the ashes of my pet in what looked like a cookie tin,'" said bureau president Randy Hutchinson.
"I'm not trying to steal from the public," said Wright. "I guess because I don't have a (crematory) permit, if the public doesn't want to deal with me, I understand."
Barbara Wells owns and operates Dixie Memorial Pet Gardens in Millington, TN (http://dixiememorialpetcemetery.com), one of four facilities in Shelby County licensed and permitted to perform pet cremations.
She gladly gives tours of her $100,000 crematory, built with a 500-lb capacity. Health department environmentalists inspect it regularly to ensure proper maintenance and heat levels.
Her staff maintains meticulous checklists and logs. Each pet is immediately tagged for identification. Its ID follows it from crematory to urn.
"There should be identification and someone who is responsible for that pet throughout the entire process," Wells said. "I feel like that's very important for the grief process...for people to have the service done promptly and have the pet's urn back with them."
Wells suggested consumers who are shopping pet cremation or burial services should ask these questions:
* Can we visit your crematory?
* Where is your crematory?
* Can I be present when my pet is cremated?
* May I bring my pet directly to the cemetery?
* Do you offer pick-up service from my veterinarian?
* Do you pick up my pet the same day as I call?
* When will my pet be cremated after you receive it, and how quickly will I receive my pet's urn?
* Can you explain the procedures and safeguards taken to make sure my pet is kept separate and how I can know that I receive only my pet's remains?
* What are your business hours?
* How do I contact you after-hours, weekends and holidays for emergency information?
* How long have you been in business?
* Do you have a website?
Consumers should also check the company's BBB rating and licensure/permit status with the state in which it operates.