Michelle Melaragno uses her tractor to turn organic materials at her Compassionate Composting where large animals can be turned into nutrient-rich soil additives. Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Melaragno

There are few things as heart wrenching as saying that final goodbye to a beloved pet. And when that animal tips the scales at more than 1,000-pounds, few things are as logistically complicated.

That’s we’re Michelle Melaragno comes in.

Owner of Compassionate Composting in Auburn, Melaragno is fully equipped to remove a recently deceased large animal. She then transforms it into something the owners can choose to reclaim.

A natural evolution of skills

“I’ve been involved with animal welfare for several decades,” Melaragno said. “That sort of evolved into my wanting to deal with horses after they die or are euthanized. It was maybe a perfect storm of things that led me to this.”

Practice manager at Equine Veterinary Service in Freeport, Melaragno is also experienced in large animal emergency rescue and has traveled internationally to help with large animal rescues and also to train other volunteers.

Not long after adding an additional 46 acres to her Auburn property about 7 years ago, she attended the Maine Compost Schoo l run by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection. The school offers educational classroom and hands-on programs for individuals interested in operating home to large-scale commercial compost operations.

It was while attending the school Melaragno got the idea to create an enterprise that combines her animal moving skills with the natural breakdown of organic materials into the soil.

“I thought of a few things before that, including a green [human] cemetery,” Melaragno said. “But it turns out I really don’t like people as much as animals. All the techniques and equipment used in rescue apply for [moving] deceased as well as live animals.”

Working with members of the Maine Compost School team, Melaragno said she selected the most suitable site on her land and developed a management plan for composting horses and other large animals — or as she also calls it above-ground burial.

Compost science

Melaragno’s business is based on solid compost science, a process that uses naturally occurring microbes and organisms to breakdown organic materials into a nutrient-rich soil additive valued by gardeners and landscapers.

Melaragno arranges her compost materials in 50- to 70-foot long windrows — traditionally long rows of cut hay or grass — into which the horses or other large animal carcasses are placed. They are then covered with organic materials including wood shavings and horse manure.

A large animal like a horse could be completely reduced to organic compost in as little as four months, according to Melaragno. But at Compassionate Composting it takes two to three months longer as her windrows are static piles, meaning she does not turn them over until six or seven months have gone by.

“My windrows are built in a specified manner that maintain a high rate of temperatures that invites those microbes and organics to come in and breakdown the flesh,” she said. “All that is left are the bones and those get turned back into the soil to continue composting.”

Like all composting, when done properly, there are no odors resulting from the process, she said, nor does it attract wildlife — beyond the occasional deer or fox in the winter that have been observed bedding down for the night on the warm piles of composting materials which reach 150-degrees at their centers.

Most of the animals are placed carefully next to each other in the rows, Melaragno said.

“It’s not entirely private,” she said. “The horses are next to but not touching each other, and every animal’s location is marked so the owner can come back to gather up a bucket or so of compost directly over where their horse or large animal is located.”

Melaragno also offers the option of private composting in which the animal is placed apart from the others.

“This way folks can have 100 percent of the animal’s composted materials,” she said. “They can come back and get all of it which is several yards of material.”

The material can then be used for anything from creating a memorial garden in honor of the animal to fertilizing and existing vegetable or flower bed.

Melaragno estimates she has composted around 400 horses in the five and a half years she’s had the business, in addition to hundreds of sheep, goats, llamas, dogs and cats.

Cost for the services — which includes picking the animal up – is based on size and weight, but for a horse or other large animal runs between $425 and $525, plus mileage.

It just makes sense

Among those who have had animals composted by Melaragno is Denise Toppe of Westbrook.

“What Michele does makes perfect sense,” Toppe said. “What I never realized at first with large animals is when they go down it’s not often in the most opportune place and getting the body up and out is not often pretty to look at.”

Melaragno, Toppe said, takes care of that.

“I have to say, Michelle has this down to the most gentle and honorable way of doing things,” Toppe said. “It’s so dignified and respectful toward the animal.”

That’s important to Melaragno, who has removed and composted three of the Toppe’s large animals and their beloved German Shepherd dog.

For many large animal owners, Melaragno said, the alternative is having someone come with a tractor, hook on to the animal with chain or cable, drag the carcass away and dump it into a large hole on their property.

While Melaragno does use a tractor and winch system, she first will gently roll the animal onto a large stretcher before dragging it to her trailer.

“Last night I went to get a large draft horse that went down in his stall that was in the underside of the barn,” she said. “That’s when I use my large animal rescue techniques to drag them out in a respectful way because with an 1,800-pound horse in a stall, it’s not always simple.”

In that case Melaragno was able to attach two of her special stretchers together and with the aid of a small tractor maneuver and gently roll the animal onto them.

After that, she said it was a straight shot to pull the stretchers out of the barn and on to her trailer, with the animal’s body never dragging directly on the ground.

“Especially for people who have had the experience of seeing their horse dragged over the ground, they are very grateful to see how we do it,” she said. “We offer that dignity and respect to the animal and to the owner.”

That can be a huge comfort to an animal lover, according to Dr. Thomas Judd, veterinarian and Melaragno’s boss at Equine Veterinary Service.

“When we bury a horse on the farm with a tractor there is a degree of dignity that is lost pretty fast when you see that animal hooked up and just dragged off,” Judd said. “Michelle uses such a respectful manner [and] the owner’s last memories of that animal are a lot gentler.”

Melaragno has composted two of his own horses, Judd said.

“I’ve put the compost in my flower beds,” he said. “Once people get past the idea that they are ‘creeped out’ by composting their animal, they realize what a great thing it is and that they can get the animal back to create and preserve a memory in their garden.”

There are rules

There are laws in Maine regulating the disposal of large animals, according to Mark Hedrich, program manager with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.

“People can bury their large animals, but it has to be done in an environmentally friendly way,” Hedrich said. “We encourage composting for any large animal because it is really the best and most environmentally friendly way to go.”

It especially makes sense for owners who have multiple large animals, he said.

“If people know what they are doing, they can bury one or two animals themselves on their own land annually,” he said. “The state does have rules laid out with regards to setbacks from water bodies [and] we do want to send out our soil scientists to make sure the [burial] sites are suitable.”

But traditional burial, Hedrich said, can tie up land for a long time and he said Compassionate Composting is an excellent alternative.

“If you bury a large animal, it’s going to be there for awhile,” he said. “With composting, it goes quickly, you end up with a valuable product and you have taken care of the issue [and] you’d be amazed how fast the carcass is broken down when the conditions are right.”

At the local level, the laws or ordinances governing large animal disposal can vary a great deal from town to town, Judd said, so by working with Melaragno, a lot of that guess work is taken out of the equation.

“Those rules are not always black and white,” he said. “And, it used to be if you had room in your back field you got an excavator, dug a hole and buried the animal, but as the population has grown that has gotten harder to do.”

Equine undertaker

Melaragno’s is largely a one-woman business, though her mother Pat Melaragno — now retired — steps in to help when she can

“I’m very fortunate that she can help me out,” Melaragno said, adding with a laugh, “Neither one of us ever expected she’d end up doing this [and] she now refers to herself as the ‘assistant equine undertaker.’”

After Melaragno picked up the first large animal from her farm, Toppe said she knew she’d made the right decision to go with Compassionate Composting.

“It’s a no brainer,” Toppe said. “She comes to you and you just feel good about her [and] when you walk on to her property it looks like you are walking onto a landscaping garden that just looks wonderful.”

Toppe has opted to bring home the compost from her animals, including most recently the compost produced by a mini horse named Suzie Q much loved by her 4-year-old granddaughter,

“She asked me, ‘Nonna, is Suzie going to grow pine trees?’” Toppe said. “I told her, ‘Yes, Georgia, she is.’”

Toppe grew silent for a moment, thinking about that exchange.

“We both cried about it for a bit, then Georgia looked at me and said, ‘[Suzie’s] dead, but life goes on,’” Toppe said. “It really is about making a new life again.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.