AUBURN — Fat flakes of snow are falling on a winter meadow surrounded by tall evergreens. It is quiet here, and peaceful – a fine final resting place.

From the branches of the tall trees dangles an occasional halter. The horses who once wore them are now being composted in the long windrows that form bumps on the landscape.

But this is no dumping ground. The love and grief of the animal lovers, young and old, who brought their animal companions here is palpable. One visitor named the display in the trees the “halter altar.”

Michelle Melaragno started Compassionate Composting on her 60-acre farm to give horse lovers and hobby farmers a place to lay their animals to rest in a respectful, loving manner. She views herself as an animal undertaker – someone who takes care of disposal but also helps comfort and guide owners through the grieving process.

There may be no other business like it in Maine. Over the past three years, Melaragno has composted more than 250 animals. Most – 182 of them – were horses, the rest a menagerie of goats, sheep, llamas, alpacas, cats, dogs, wildlife and even a lone potbelly pig.

Dr. Rachel Flaherty, an equine vet with a practice in the Portland area, says she has sent about 50 clients to Melaragno, and other vets who care for animals of all shapes and sizes are following suit.

Michelle Melaragno of Compassionate Composting works on a curing pile at her Whistle Ridge Farm in Auburn. Melaragno has composted more than 250 animals in the past three years, and some of the compost is returned to the animals’ pastures.

Michelle Melaragno of Compassionate Composting works on a curing pile at her Whistle Ridge Farm in Auburn. Melaragno has composted more than 250 animals in the past three years, and some of the compost is returned to the animals’ pastures. Photos by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Although some people think the idea of composting a farm animal is “weird,” Flaherty said, they change their minds when they see how Melaragno handles the bodies – with respect.

“She just does a nice job,” Flaherty said. “People give glowing reports.”

Many Mainers are getting into hobby farming, but how many of them think far enough down the road to the time when they’ll have to dispose of a beloved alpaca or a goat that has died?

Large farms with many animals have carcass disposal plans and must follow state regulations to ensure the animals are disposed of properly. Hobby farmers have fewer animals, but often have strong emotional connections with them.

RIGHT WAYS, WRONG WAYS

There are several ways to dispose of an animal carcass, but some methods are expensive, impractical or frowned upon because of their environmental impact.

The state regulates the disposal of animal remains through the Maine Department of Agriculture, Food and Rural Resources. But hobby farmers, or people who keep just a few animals at their home, are generally exempt from the long list of rules, says Mark Hedrich, nutrient management program manager at the Maine Department of Agriculture. They aren’t, however, completely off the hook.

Hobby farmers, equestrians and other individuals may bury one large animal (such as a cow or horse) that weighs 500 pounds or more, or two medium-sized animals (sheep, goats, deer, etc. weighing between 100 and 500 pounds) annually, provided they follow spelled-out setbacks to prevent contamination of streams and groundwater.

Burial is probably the most common method, Hedrich said, along with simply dragging the deceased animal out into the woods and leaving it, a practice the Department of Agriculture discourages, as it can attract wild animals and spread disease.

A halter hangs in memory of a horse on a tree at Melaragno’s farm.

A halter hangs in memory of a horse on a tree at Melaragno’s farm.

But burials are not problem free. For starters, some communities don’t allow it, Flaherty warned. Also, not everyone has space on their land to bury a larger animal. Or they may not know how to do it properly. For instance, hobby farmers and horse owners tend to bury their animals too deep, Hedrich said, where oxygen can’t reach the carcass, slowing decomposition.

The logistics can also be a headache for hobby farmers like Betti Curran of Topsham. Until she discovered Compassionate Composting, her go-to plan when a horse or a goat died used to be to hire someone with the right equipment to come out and bury the animals on her property. Often, she said, “they couldn’t come for a full 24 hours, and it’s upsetting to have your dead horse laying there.”

COMPOSTING ENCOURAGED

Other options for carcass disposal are cremation, rendering, landfilling and – as Melaragno does – composting. The closest large-animal crematorium, though, is in Dover, N.H., and while a few Maine animals still go to rendering plants, mostly in New York state, Hedrich said, it’s not a practical choice for a hobby farmer.

While Maine law allows large animals to be put in landfills, most would not be interested in accepting them, according to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

The Maine Department of Agriculture’s policy is to encourage hobby farmers to compost their animals – which is what most large farms in the state do.

“The great thing about composting is that you can take a cow or a bunch of cows, and if you do it right, they can essentially be gone, depending on the time of year, in 12 weeks, except for the bones,” Hedrich said. “You just recompost those bones, and with time they’ll be gone, too.”

Composting doesn’t tie up the land for years, he said, and results in a useful product – good soil. And if an animal dies in winter, the owner needn’t worry about digging into frozen ground.

But not all hobby farmers want to compost their deceased animals themselves or know how to. And if they think they can just call a larger farm that composts its own animals and ask them to take their dead horse or milk cow? That’s probably not going to happen. Large farms will most likely turn carcasses from smaller farms away because those animals could introduce disease, Hedrich said. (Commercial composters might accept an occasional animal for a fee, he said.)

LEARNING FROM BAD EXPERIENCES

Michelle Melaragno had bumped up against all of these barriers personally when she tried to bury her own horses. She also heard horror stories from her friends about how their animals were handled. Burial, she said, is “often a more difficult process to watch than the actual euthanasia of the horse.”

“It’s difficult to lift them tactfully,” she said, noting that the average horse weighs 1,000 pounds.

She last buried one of her own horses in 2006. It took two days to find someone with an excavator. She finally ending up renting the machine and paying an operator to dig the hole. “It was an awful process,” she said.

Melaragno got the idea for her business when she became an assistant instructor with Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue, a group that rescues horses from entrapments, overturned trailers and other emergency situations. The rescue team uses a “large animal rescue glide” to move horses – essentially, a horse-sized stretcher.

AUBURN, ME - FEBRUARY 5: Michelle Melaragno of Compassionate Composting checks the temperature of a windrow at Whistle Ridge Farm in Auburn Friday, February 5, 2016. (Photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer)

Michelle Melaragno of Compassionate Composting checks the temperature of a windrow at Whistle Ridge Farm in Auburn.

At Compassionate Composting, the process begins by rolling the animal onto a similar stretcher, she explained. It takes three people to move the body of a 1,000-pound horse – Melaragno’s retired mom often pitches in.

The animal is laid on a bed of shavings and sawdust that contain manure and other organic material – the same stuff that’s shoveled out of stalls. “That material is what your horse is used to,” Melaragno said. “It’s their home environment.”

The animal’s body is then covered in the same material. After four to five months, she turns the pile and adds more shavings. By this point, the animal’s soft tissue has disintegrated. She turns the pile regularly every couple of weeks after that.

When you stand among the windrows, the only smell is an occasional whiff of something earthy and woodsy, a barn smell. If you can smell a decomposing body, Melaragno said, it means the pile needs maintenance.

Melaragno’s fee ranges from $375 to $550, depending on the size of the animal, and she tacks on a mileage charge if she has to pick up a corpse.

MaineToday Media Publisher Lisa DeSisto’s alpaca Bub, shown above on the day he was born, died unexpectedly before turning 1 year old. “We never found out why,” DeSisto wrote in an email. “The theory is maybe he got kicked in the head by one of the older animals.“ Bub’s remains remain at Compassionate Composting. Courtesy photo

MaineToday Media Publisher Lisa DeSisto’s alpaca Bub, shown above on the day he was born, died unexpectedly before turning 1 year old. “We never found out why,” DeSisto wrote in an email. “The theory is maybe he got kicked in the head by one of the older animals.“ Bub’s remains remain at Compassionate Composting.
Courtesy photo

Those who hire Melaragno to handle the bodies of their dead animals sometimes ask for the compost back. She can make that possible by composting the animal individually, which is more expensive, or by marking where an animal is buried in a windrow.

“They take it home, and they spread it in the pasture where their horse used to be,” Melargano said, “so they know the horse is back in the pasture with its herdmates.”

MEMORIAL HALTERS

Melaragno first began hanging the halters in the trees because “it didn’t feel right” to bury horses with their halters on. She uses the halters to help secure the dead horses to the stretcher. She offers to return them to the owners, but when Melaragno tells them about the “halter altar,” most are happy to leave the halters behind.

One client sent a rosary with her horse, and Melaragno tied it to the horse’s halter. In another case, two little girls brought in cedar branches with their deceased horse. The branches came from a tree he used to like to scratch against, and Melaragno placed them atop the compost pile where the animal was buried.

After Betti Curran’s distressing experience burying her horse, she hired Compassionate Composting to compost her favorite goat, Fred. “When he died I was devastated, even though he had lived a long life and was ready to go,” she said.

The fact that Melaragno treated his body with respect made all the difference to Curran.

Melaragno has about 100 yards of finished compost right now. She would like to sell it wholesale. She’s also hoping to network with small landscaping businesses that might want a truckload or two. If she can’t sell it, though, she’ll use it on her own land.

“It will never go to waste,” she said.


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