AUBURN, Maine — Michelle Melaragno has grown accustomed to people’s reactions when she describes her new start-up business: composting large animals, such as horses and cows, for their grieving owners.
“They make a face, you know, and they say, ‘Eww,’” she said. “And then, when I explain it a bit more, it starts to make sense. They realize it’s a pretty good idea.”
It has been a year since she talked Auburn city councilors and the city planning board through the process and the reasons behind it and they allowed her to proceed.
She has her financing in place and has started construction on the facility. She said she hopes to be open and ready to begin accepting carcasses in mid-November.
“I’ve already turned away 21 horses and I haven’t even done anything yet,” she said. “I’m not even ready to open, but the word of mouth is spreading among veterinarians and horse owners.”
She’s building a gravel pad that will hold her compost piles on 46 acres she owns off Trapp Road. The pad will be be 100 feet square surrounded by gravel berms, with enough room to compost at least 50 large animal carcasses.
The idea for the business, Compassionate Composting Inc., is based on a love of the big animals and a good bit of science.
“It started with a New England forum where we were discussing issues with large carcass management — particularly horses,” she said. “Whether it’s municipal ordinances against burying or expenses, like having to rent a backhoe, there are difficulties.”
Farmers with plenty of land have dealt with dead livestock for years by putting the animals in the middle of a manure pile or burying them on the farm property. But state rules about burying animals are misunderstood by many.
“There are many laws that people just don’t know about,” Melaragno said. “It has to be a certain distance from the house, the road, the well and any potential water sources. There are some municipal ordinances that prohibit burying anything at all.”
It’s a bigger problem for horse owners who board their animals but don’t have land to bury them.
“Even if you have the land, you need the backhoe to dig the hole — and then you need to hire someone to drive it,” she said.
Cremation is an option, but it can be expensive. Composting is the most accepted way, according to the state’s best-management practices.
The practice calls for putting down a layer of covering material — a mix of manure, hay, wood shavings and spoiled food — with the carcass on top. More covering material is put on top and the body begins to decay, generating a high amount of heat in the process. State rules require the piles to be higher than 131 degrees for three days straight to kill off bacteria and degrade any chemicals used to euthanize the animal. The heat and covering material also contain odors and keep the pile from attracting animals.
Six months later, the body is gone except for some of the larger bones. Those can be crushed or put back in newer piles to continue decaying.
The end result is a clean compost that can be sold commercially. Melaragno said she hopes to sell the compost to wholesalers.
Under some circumstances, Melaragno said she can keep individual carcasses separate, giving owners bags of compost from their animals when they are done.
“Often, people want a way to memorialize their animal,” she said. “When we’re done, we can load it up for them and they can use it for their landscaping or their flower beds. And then, their animal is back home with them.”