Losing a pet can be one of the most devastating experiences to recover from. Words cannot begin to describe the sudden loss of warmth and joy from everyday life as owners reflect back on the good times shared with their furry friends. This is where physical memories—of the final moments with your ageing pets—can turn into a helpful resource for coping with grief.
And this is exactly what end-of-life pet photographer Lauren Smith-Kennedy aims to address, by offering free photoshoots for owners saying their final goodbyes to their four-legged companions.
Based in South Portland, Maine, Smith-Kennedy was initially inspired to offer the service after experiencing the sudden loss of her cat, Tilly. “The loss of a pet is truly one of the most heart-breaking, earth-shattering pains out there that so many of us can relate to,” she said in an interview with My Modern Met. “While there is no cure-all for grief, I feel honoured to be trusted to capture such meaningful, vulnerable moments while memorialising the unbreakable bond between animals and their families.”
With sessions lasting 45 minutes to one hour, the end-of-life photographer gives owners the complete autonomy of the photoshoot. “They are what you want them to be,” Smith-Kennedy wrote on her website. “This means you could have your whole family involved or just solo photos of your pet.”
For further personalisation, the photographer gives certain prompts for engagement rather than suggestions for poses during the photoshoot. Owners can additionally choose between black and white or colour portraits.
After sharing her work across social media, Smith-Kennedy witnessed an influx of inquiries from several families across the country. Since her photography services are free of charge, however, she is only able to travel within a 20-mile radius of Portland. But her commitment to the cause has led her to create the Tilly Project: a network that aims to connect pet owners with end-of-life pet photographers around the world—seeking to provide accessible, educational and supportive resources for photography, anticipatory grief and pet loss.
From gummy smiles and wet snouts to nostalgic eyes and powerful embraces, Smith-Kennedy’s photographs reflect on why the grief of pet owners deserve acknowledgement. They also showcase the different dynamics of how people cope with the loss of a beloved family member as they cross the rainbow bridge into impressionable immortality.
“I offer my sessions for free as a way to make this resource as accessible as possible,” she told My Modern Met. “I strongly believe that everyone deserves to have beautiful photos of their pets because though some may be small in size, they really do create the biggest impacts on our lives while teaching us the truest form of loyalty and love in the process.”
That’s it everyone: we have officially reached the end of the technocratic, self-obsessed influencer world of today. The rabbit hole of doing anything and everything for a view, like or a follow has landed us in a strange version of Pet Sematary—only this time, pets aren’t rising back from the dead because of a curse, but because their owners don’t want to let them go and lose their precious content.
You read that right, petfluencers are cloning their companions in order to keep the content ball rolling and the money flowing. ‘Zombie dogs’ are the latest must-have in the influencer starter pack, with creators cloning their star pets before their unavoidable death as a way to make sure they’ll have another identical animal available for more content.
Among the few influencers who have decided to clone their pets is Courtney Udvar-Hazy, the 29-year-old content creator behind the popular account @Wander_with_Willow, which focuses on her wolf-dog hybrid Willow.
Willow’s entire journey had been documented online, from the moment Udvar-Hazy got her as a tiny puppy to bravely trekking the wilderness on hikes with her human. In 2018, the poor pup passed away after being struck by a car. Now, you’d think that this would be the end of the road for the Instagram account, despite Willow’s nifty little online following, but you couldn’t be more wrong. With a little help from Texas-based pet cloning company and cell preserver, ViaGen Pets, Udvar-Hazy hit copy and paste on Willow.
Tens of thousands of dollars later, meet Willow’s clone, Phoenix, also a wolf-dog hybrid, aged two.
Founded in 2016, ViaGen Pets is also known for cloning Barbra Streisand’s fur baby Samantha in 2018. Its technology uses the original pet’s cells in order to make an embryo which is then transferred to a surrogate mother.
It costs a pretty penny to carry all of this out too as ViaGen Pets’ rates for animal cloning go for anything around $50,000 (£37,000) for dogs and $35,000 (£26,000) for cats, because who can say goodbye to those oh-so-precious toe beans? Even horses can be cloned, but it’ll cost you anything upwards of $45,000 (£33,000).
You get what you pay for though as ViaGen Pets client service manager, Melain Rodriguez, explained to Input, “Someone could clone their pet and replace the original.” In fact, Rodriguez added that the company is so good at what it does that the world “may never know” whether someone has cloned their pet or not.
Despite this, it seems that influencers are more forthcoming about cloning than they are about editing body pics. @Clash_of_the_Clones and @Baxter_the_clone are some of the many who have literally followed the proverbial ‘letting the cat out the bag’ and are loud and proud on the platform about their peculiar pets.
Though the clones may be an exact DNA match to the original puppers, ViaGen Pets also noted that they can differ from their DNA donors. These clones can develop their own temperaments and personalities—evil twin takeover maybe?
Pet clones are the gift that keeps on giving too, as Udvar-Hazy shared with Input that she created an additional five clones to hand out to her friends.
For owners like Udvar-Hazy, cloning helps them to get over the grief and loss of their close furry companions. The downside detractors warn about is that having such power over life and death could simply be tech going too far, as making copies of a pet also encourages an owner’s misguided attempts at bringing them back.
The response to Udvar-Hazy’s decision to genetically duplicate her floof has not been met with resounding support at all. “I get a lot of crap about cloning,” she told Input, continuing, “People say I have zombie dogs, or they call me a crazy rich girl. It was hurtful to me at first.”
Bringing pets back from the dead is actually pretty common. In a paid partnership with ViaGen Pets, the team behind @TinkerbelleTheDog—the “fabulous fluff” according to its Instagram bio, sitting on a high throne of over 500,000 followers—revealed in 2019 that the doggy’s DNA was being stored for cloning.
ViaGen Pets remains positive about the opportunities for cloning within the petfluencer industry. After many conferences speaking about the innovation, “We definitely got some clients that moved forward with preserving the cells,” Rodriguez enthusiastically shared with Input. Let sleeping dogs lie, I say.