No-notice cemetery closing upsets pet owners in area

November 12, 2005|By LAURA CADIZ | LAURA CADIZ,SUN REPORTER

Leonard Zandel trudged through the 2-foot-high grass at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge, looking for the graves of the pets that he and his wife began burying there 20 years ago.

He knows his four-footed friends - three dogs, a turtle and a cat - are laid to rest by a tree on the property. But the grass and leaves have taken over, showing no sign of the grave markers.

"I've never seen it like this before," said Zandel, who is among a number of pet owners disgruntled to learn that the cemetery has closed without notice. "I've never had a problem walking through and finding the right headstone."

The pet cemetery - home to more than 22,000 animals, including two dogs of former Gov. William Donald Schaefer and a lion and an elephant from the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore - has had a history of troubles, including theft by a previous owner, foreclosure and pet owners being given the wrong ashes after their animals' cremation.

Owner Gunter Tertel said the cemetery is closed because of "no funds, no money," and he's trying to reopen it. He has offered no other details.

Pet owners like Zandel and his wife, Gail, who were never told of the closure - which Tertel said happened more than a year ago - are wondering what will happen to the final resting place for their pets.

"You always hope - like at a human [cemetery] - that this will go on forever, and all of our pets will be buried here," said Zandel, 65, of Washington. "And we'd be able to visit them all here."

Pet cemeteries are ripe for such disappointment because there are virtually no laws regulating them, said Rob Lauver, who founded the National Association of Pet Funeral Directors in 1996 to respond to fraud in the industry.

In Maryland, the Office of Cemetery Oversight does not regulate pet cemeteries, said George A. Piendak, the group's director.

"That's the problem - I literally could buy an acre of land, bury a thousand pets, turn around in a week and sell it," Lauver said.

Lauver said that many pet cemeteries were built years ago in rural areas that have turned into valuable, developable land.

"In the situation at Bonheur, now you have that property sitting along a major highway, which makes it very advantageous to develop it," he said.

That's what pet owners are afraid Tertel will do, although he insists he's trying to reopen the cemetery, which also used to accommodate humans who wanted to be laid to rest beside their pets. At least 18 people are buried there.

Wanting to prevent the site from being developed, Gail Zandel is trying to rally a group of pet owners to buy the land, which the state has assessed at $287,500. She's trying to find other people who have buried their pets there.

"I'm devastated from this because I really love my pets a lot," said Zandel, 58, who runs a pet adoption agency in the Baltimore-Washington area. "I thought they'd be at peace."

But Zandel and other pet owners who have not buried pets there in a number of years were never told that Tertel is the new owner. His Bonheur Land Co. bought the land in 1997 for $219,500, state property tax records show. Some discovered the cemetery was closed when they tried to bury deceased pets.

"We paid money, and we have a right to know what ... going on," said Vikki Molesan, 57, of Baltimore, who estimated that she paid about $300 each to have five dogs buried in the cemetery.

The 7-acre parcel off U.S. 1 appears abandoned. A building that serves as the office has broken windows. Letters at the entrance are falling off the brick facade.

Through the sea of grass, some graves are marked with plastic flowers, and other plots have been neatly tended. A golf ball and toy bone are at the final resting place of "Dearest Little Johann Gray, Missed and loved by mom and pop Curtis, 1992-1999."

Nearby lies "Buffy Speedy, We love and miss you always, Mummy and Daddy 1976-1984."

Howard County Consumer Affairs does not have an open complaint file regarding the cemetery, though it has received calls from pet owners, said administrator Stephen Hannan.

Some of the pet owners maintain that they paid for perpetual care when they bought their plots. Molesan has a 1994 invoice from when she buried her dog, Leroy, showing a one-time $35 fee for a perpetual care trust fund.

Gertrude Cassidy said she paid about $450 to bury her Pomeranian, Ginger, and said she was guaranteed that the cemetery would be tended.

"Then you pay your money for nothing," said Cassidy, 77, of Catonsville. "We can't let the poor animals rest in peace."

Lauver said pet cemeteries should put perpetual care money into an irrevocable trust to build interest, guaranteeing future funds for upkeep. That's the system that he's working on for his pet cemetery, which he started 13 years ago near Harrisburg, Pa.

"Everybody has good intentions when they start these, but no one understands that to do it right, it's a long-term, perpetual-care nightmare," Lauver said. "If I knew what I knew now, I would never start a cemetery. It's a [money] loser."

With such uncertainty at Rosa Bonheur, pet owners are pondering almost the unfathomable - digging up their animals' remains to bury them elsewhere.

That's what Ray Hamby and his son, Ruben, attempted to do three years ago when they visited the grave of their Doberman, Baby Jane, and found that her resting place was covered with grass and weeds and that the headstone had been ripped off.

Hamby said his son was so upset that they took a shovel and tried to dig up Baby Jane, planning to bury her in his backyard. But when they hit the white coffin, which had been buried 12 years earlier, they decided against it.

"When we actually got down to the reality of a broken-down, rotted wood coffin, we realized it was just impractical," Hamby said.

Hamby, 83, said he hasn't been back, calling the place "a pretty sad ending for your beloved pet."

When his other dog, a Lhasa apso named St. Joan of Bark, died two years ago, he buried her in the backyard at his Baltimore home.

laura.cadiz@baltsun.com

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