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Healthy dog euthanized in Virginia because owner wanted it buried with her

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By David K. Li and Helen Kwong  with NBC News U.S. News
Image: A cemetery with headstones.
A cemetery with headstones.   -   Copyright  alexyurchenko Getty Images

A healthy dog was put to death in Virginia at the behest of its owner, who made the request in her will.

The owner of Emma, a Shih Tzu mix, died on March 8. Her dog was held at the Chesterfield Animal Shelter before it was picked up on March 22 and then euthanized, NBC affiliate WWBT in Richmond first reported.

Heartbroken animal shelter officials said they had no choice but to turn over Emma to the estate executor, even knowing what was going to happen to her.

"We did suggest they could sign the dog over on numerous occasions because it's a dog we could easily find a home for and re-home," Chesterfield Animal Services manager Carrie Jones told WWBT. "Ultimately, they came back in on March 22 and redeemed the dog."

Emma's owner, 67-year-old Anita Cullop-Thompson, wanted to be interred with her pet, Morrissett Funeral and Cremation Service owner Larry Spiaggi told NBC News.

Spiaggi, who is also president of the Virginia Funeral Directors Association, said he only learned of Cullop-Thompson's request after his Richmond mortuary handled the woman's cremation. Over the years, Spiaggi said he's come across families that have euthanized a late loved one's pet when the dog or cat was old and couldn't cope with a new home.

"I do see that point of view, but that wasn't the case here," Spiaggi told NBC News. "This dog was healthy and friendly, that's the sad thing about it."

NBC News sought comment from surviving family members of Cullop-Thompson. One could not immediately be reached and one declined to discuss the matter.

News of the pet owner's last request sparked outrage on social media.

"Disgusting f------ nonsense," British comedian Ricky Gervais tweeted Thursday with a BBC story about the dog's death.

Houston radio personality Rod Ryan said he couldn't understand how Emma's death was legal.

"Everyone involved needs to go to jail," Ryan tweeted on Thursday. "A woman who died in Virginia had stipulated that her dog be laid to rest with her . . . even though it was perfectly healthy."

The veterinarian who euthanized Emma broke no laws, according to WWBT.

A spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health Professions, which regulates and licenses veterinarians in the commonwealth, did not immediately return messages seeking comment.

The Humane Society of America said it opposes the killing of an animal that could be adopted.

"It is a heartbreaking situation," Humane Society Vice President Amy Nichols said in a statement. "While we don't know the specifics of this case, as a general matter, we don't support the euthanasia of healthy and adoptable animals when other alternatives exist, such as re-homing of the pet."

And it wasn't immediately clear if Cullop-Thompson got her final wish to be interred with Emma. State laws bar internment of humans and pets at large, for-profit cemeteries, according to Spiaggi.

Cemeteries on private land, at churches or non-profit graveyards, are not covered by state laws and could do such joint human-pet burials — but operators typically oppose it, Spiaggi said.