Freeze-drying: It's not just for pets anymore

When the topic of conversation is great American inventors, most folks think: Edison and the light bulb; Bell and the telephone; Wright, his brother, and their airplane; or, if they're really stretching, maybe even Clarence Birdseye and frozen food. Chances are they will not throw out the name Alan Anger. Not yet, anyway.

But Anger has made a contribution to American ingenuity arguably on a par with Birdseye's subzero inventions. A decade ago the 52-year-old entrepreneur from Osseo created a freeze-dryer at a quarter of the cost and about one-third the size of existing machines. Since 1993, through his company Freezedry Specialties, Anger has sold about 750 of the devices, to everyone from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to Memories Forever flower shop in Rolesville, North Carolina. "I'm not comparing myself to Henry Ford, but Henry Ford made the automobile affordable to everyone," gushes Anger. "I think we've done the same thing for freeze-drying."

The associations that pop up in most people's minds when they contemplate freeze-drying are flowers, ground coffee, flavorless backpacking grub, and childhood visits to the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum, where people can consume freeze-dried ice cream, just like the astronauts. But Anger's machines will forever be linked with revolutionizing the taxidermy business. Or, to be more specific, making the world safe for freeze-dried pets.

Pet-rified: Alan Anger has brought freeze-drying to the masses
Craig Lassig
Pet-rified: Alan Anger has brought freeze-drying to the masses

"I just can't see taking an animal that somebody loves and throwing it in the ground and burying it, or burning it," explains Anger. "There's people that can enjoy those animals if they're freeze-dried."

Prior to the introduction of Anger's machines, which start at $8,500, the preservation of animals for posterity had largely been left to outdoorsmen. Taxidermists would skin an animal, discard the carcass, and stretch the hide over a polyurethane form. Freeze-drying had long been taboo because of the difficulties it engendered. The machines were unwieldy, expensive, and inefficient, and it was difficult to determine when an animal had been in the freeze-dryer long enough. If animals are not sufficiently dried out, they eventually "go back to their natural state," as Arthur Sturm, a taxidermist in Ojai, California, tastefully puts it. And if they decompose they lose their hair, begin to smell, and ooze fat.

Anger's machine, basically a bastardized Frigidaire freezer, was designed to eliminate the mess. Before Frisky the cat is placed in the machine, he must be prepped and posed. "I just cut from the bellybutton down to the bunghole and pull out all the insides," tutors Sturm, who owns two of Anger's machines and estimates that 75 percent of his taxidermy business is freeze-drying. Frisky's eyes must also be removed (otherwise they would shrivel up because of their high water content), and the inside of the animal is washed to eliminate blood. The cat is then placed inside a quarter-inch-thick glass chamber inside the freezer. For most household pets the process can take anywhere from three weeks to three months.

Anger has largely eliminated the guesswork in determining when an animal has been sufficiently freeze-dried by using a "thermocouple probe." This device is injected into a meaty part of Frisky, such as his thigh, and allows the cat's internal body temperature to be monitored. When Frisky's carcass returns to room temperature, he's ready for the Barcalounger.

Anger is a large man with a small, kind face. His thinning black hair is graying at the edges. Seated in the warehouse offices of Freezedry Specialties, he speaks of freeze-drying with the enthusiasm that most people reserve for sports cars or caviar. Anger retrieves a plump brown freeze-dried rabbit and sets it down on his desk. "It feels like something that's alive," he marvels, stroking the animal's fur.

Rabbits, along with cats, dogs, turkey heads, and squirrels, are among the most commonly freeze-dried animals. But Rusty Reising, an Evansville, Indiana, taxidermist who owns two of Anger's machines, says that he has also prepared crayfish, mink, weasels, snakes, chameleons, even marmosets, the Gremlin-like monkeys.

Anger keeps some of the more renowned freeze-dried animals at the Osseo offices: a kitty that did (post-freezer) time hawking Anderson windows, a tufted-ear squirrel who won "Best in World Freezedry" at the World Taxidermy Show in the early Nineties, and a rare luminous green Parson's chameleon, native to Madagascar (it no longer changes colors).

Despite Anger's fervor for all things freeze-dried, he is uncomfortable in the role of chief proselytizer for pet preservation. Anger would much rather discuss his invention's various other, more savory functions. "The real story is not the pets," he insists. "The real story is what freeze-drying can do overall." In the past year Freezedry Specialties' machines have been used to dry out and preserve wallets and other personal belongings from airplane crashes. When the Mayo Clinic in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, flooded in October, one of Anger's freeze-dryers was employed to preserve x-rays. At the University of Nevada's medical school the equipment is being used to preserve human brains without the carcinogenic addition of formaldehyde.

Paul Storch, senior objects conservator at the Minnesota Historical Society, has worked with one of Anger's freeze-drying machines for the past two years. In 1997 the land where the Science Museum of Minnesota now sits was excavated. The area had been an infamous St. Paul red-light district during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, home to numerous brothels and bars. When the Bucket of Blood saloon, at the corner of Eagle and Washington streets, was unearthed, archaeologists discovered a dump behind the premises. It contained nails, glass, and other detritus, but also two hats, one of which was made from muskrat fur. Using his freeze-dryer, Storch was able to preserve them for posterity.

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