Pet lovers mourn loss of 'family' Memorials: Beloved pets are pampered from the here to the hereafter.

March 18, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Tucked in the corner of the patio at Dorothy and Ken Walt's rowhouse is a blue plastic barrel in which the delicate stalk of a cherry tree grows. Around its base lie a ceramic reindeer, a plastic snowman and a gray gargoyle playing the saxophone. A statue of the Blessed Mother, flanked by angels, overlooks two bronze markers:

"Suzy Walt. 12-25-83 to 11-17-90. Our Little Angel."

"Tessa Walt. 5-84 to 1-95. Heaven's Little Gatekeeper."

The shrine pays tribute to the Walts' "girls" -- a 6-year-old collie-terrier mix who loved her morning cup of coffee and a Chihuahua named for St. Theresa. Both were rescued from a pet cemetery in Elkridge, where their owners had believed they would rest in peace. As it turned out, it was a doggone lie.

Last April, the Walts' beloved pets were found decomposing in a shed at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park. Ken Walt identified them in their pink coffins: Suzy, by the silver St. Francis necklace around her neck, and Tessa by the two stuffed dragons lying by her side.

The Walts, who believed they had given their girls the best in life and in death, suddenly realized the magnitude of their betrayal. Not only were "the girls" in some kind of earthly limbo, but the urns the Walts kept in their home held the ashes of impostors.

The owner of the cemetery, William A. Green of Sykesville, abandoned the place in February and lost it to foreclosure last month. He still faces three criminal charges for illegal trade practices. And today, the cemetery goes on the auction block in Ellicott City.

Green has been ordered to pay the Walts and 16 other bereaved pet owners about $20,000 for grave markers he never delivered and for the more unforgivable transgression of switching the ashes of animals. But the Walts will tell you this is not about money. In fact, they don't expect to see any of the cash because Green -- who is also in trouble as a developer -- owes more than 60 creditors close to half a million dollars. The Walts must simply take comfort in knowing "the girls" are finally at peace -- and close at hand.

"They were always there to talk to and listen to me," Dorothy says, as her eyes fill with tears. "All we know is we miss them. They were part of our family."

22,000 animals

Few graves go unadorned at the cemetery off Route 1 in Elkridge. Some 22,000 animals are memorialized there. Flowers, statues, candles and pinwheels decorate elaborate granite headstones. Some markers have sunk into the soft ground, others stand 4 feet high. One reads: "To Misha -- We love and miss you." Another says, "Pansy and Trinket, my two unselfish friends in this selfish world."

"Twenty years ago, you wouldn't have heard of people burying their pets at cemeteries. They would just dig a hole for them in the back yard," says Sandra Barker, an associate professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth University. "Pets symbolize so much to people now. When they lose that pet who's been through college years, a marriage, a divorce and other traumatic things with the person, it's a tragedy. It's the end of a unique

relationship. To pet owners, they're burying family members, not just a dog or a cat."

In some ways, the Rosa Bonheur graveyard must have been ahead of its time when it opened 61 years ago. Eighteen humans who couldn't bear to be buried without their pets are there -- with their pets, of course. So is Carlo -- who supposedly lived to claim the title of oldest dog in the state, before he died at 27. In these eight green acres rest a horse, a duck, a lion and an elephant from the Baltimore Zoo. Even former Gov. William Donald Schaefer buried his two dogs there.

Willie II, his black Labrador who died from cancer, followed Willie I to the cemetery early last year. "It's almost like I lost a relative in Willie II," says Schaefer, who paid $695 for the dog's burial. "I had no hesitation in giving him a burial. He was a friend and a companion. He always made you feel loved. He deserved it."

People who entrusted their pets to Green say they are dismayed by the cemetery's decline. When an Ellicott City bank foreclosed last month on the property, it set off a panic.

People showed up at the cemetery at all hours. They called reporters asking advice. Should they go out there and dig up their pet? Was someone going to steal their poor pooch's headstone?

A nonprofit animal advocacy group agreed to keep tabs on the place, and the alarm subsided. (Coincidentally, state legislators are considering laws that would require licensing any for-profit cemetery -- including ones for pets -- to provide closer scrutiny.)

Meanwhile, Mike and Sharon Lipka of Baltimore stop every weekday on their way from the Fort Meade area to visit the graves of their four cats. They bring a single flower for each; on Sunday, they have a $20 bouquet delivered.

Better days

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