ANNAPOLIS – The story of pet cemetery legislation in the Maryland General Assembly involves metal detectors, decorated World War II veterans and even a NASA physicist.
Reincarnation is not an issue, though fans of Stephen King’s novel “Pet Sematary,” may see similarities in the once mud-filled animal graves at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Howard County.
The much-criticized cemetery was the first pet cemetery in the nation to allow humans to be buried with their pets. Two years ago, it garnered much media attention for its fall into disrepair. Grass grew three feet high, headstones sank into the mud and tires littered the dreary landscape. Recently, a group of volunteers began cleaning it up.
The issue spurred the Maryland General Assembly to get involved in regulating pet cemeteries, which are currently unregulated – causing some owners to disregard contracts with pet owners who pay thousands of dollars to have a final resting place for their beloved animals.
This is the second time around for the bill, which stalled in the House of Delegates last year.
“This is a protection issue. We all love our animals. You expect to get what you pay for but we know that that’s just not happening,” said lead sponsor of the bill Senator Norman R. Stone, D-Baltimore County, in a hearing Thursday before the Senate Finance Committee.
Stone is an animal lover. His mutt Ginger – who used to accompany Stone to his office in Annapolis and who loved to go fishing – died two years ago.
“I haven’t gotten another one yet because I’ll never see another Ginger,” said Stone.
Even though some humans are buried in pet cemeteries – there are said to be more than 100 humans buried at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park – they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the Maryland Cemetery Oversight Committee. The bill requires pet cemetery owners to maintain the property, have a mapping system for each grave, keep refrigerators for dead animals and not sell the property unless proper arrangements are made for the buried pets.
Michael Gisriel, a representative of the owner of Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park, says he does not have a problem with requiring the up-keep of pet cemeteries but rather with the difficulty the bill would present in selling them. He says it would diminish the value of pet cemetery land considerably.
“I have pets and would like them taken care of. But under Maryland law pets are not afforded the same status as people. Pets are great but not the same as like your uncle Ned,” said Gisriel.
What is buried in this particular cemetery in Howard County is as colorful as its history. The heart of Mary Anne the Baltimore Zoo’s first elephant is buried there, as is William Donald Schaeffer’s black Labrador retriever Willie II and a decorated World War II fighting dog.
The bill passed the Senate last year in a 45-0 vote but failed mostly because of time constraints in the House. Advocates are determined that it will fare better this year.
“We sent out letters during the campaign to see how the new legislators would vote for it and most of them seemed like they would. We are also ahead of schedule this year,” said Penny Blankenship a volunteer at Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park.
Blankenship and her husband Gilbert Blankenship saw the story of Bonheur cemetery on WBAL-TV news. Although they did not have any pets buried there, they decided to go out and see if the situation was as bleak as the news station said.
It was worse. Garbage littered the sunken graves that were caked in mud and hidden by hip-high grass. The Blankenship’s organized a volunteer group of five core members, and some other sporadic helpers to clean up the cemetery. The first time they mowed the grass the lawn mower choked and sputtered out.
“We go there because it is the right thing to do,” said Penny Blankenship, who has three Siberian Huskies and refuses to bury her animals anywhere unless the bill is passed.
NASA physicist Dr. David Simpson buried his dog Scruffy at the cemetery in 1992. When he visited in 2005 he could not locate Scruffy with the GPS coordinates he originally measured. Even with a metal detector it was hard to find the grave and head stone, which had sunk two feet into the ground.
“It is all about responsibility. I have got a deed that says they will take care of the grave site forever,” said Simpson explaining that he is now trying to restore other grave stones by using sod as a support.
Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park is just one example of pet cemetery mismanagement in Maryland, witnesses told legislators. Diane Nixon buried her dog in Aspen Hill Cemetery in Silver Spring where later the owner attempted to sell it to a developer who wanted to build condominiums.
“There are pet cemeteries in every county represented by this committee,” said Nixon to the Senate Finance Committee. “Baltimore County has at least four and I found at least 19 on the internet.”
The pet owners said that according to The American Veterinary Medicine Association 86 percent of Americans view their pets as children or family members and also that pet owners spend an estimated 38.4 billion on toys, food, veterinarian bills and other pet related purchases each year. “When someone says ‘cemetery’ that means forever, this is not public storage it is a final resting place,” said Blankenship.