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LA County's Oldest Pet Cemetery Is Part Of Hollywood's Golden Age

Black and white image of the original LA Pet Cemetery sign from the 1930s. The sign is decorated with a portrait of a German Shepherd dog standing proudly on top of a rock. The sign reads "office and display rooms, L.A. Pet Cemetery, visitors welcome, crematory and mausoleum."
A vintage photo of the original L.A. Pet Cemetery sign.
(Herman J Schultheis Collection/Los Angeles Photographers Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)
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Hidden behind a self-storage facility and the Mulholland Harley Davidson, there exist 10 acres of historic hallowed ground. Like all Los Angeles cemeteries, this one is equal parts old Hollywood kitsch and profound sentimentality. One major distinction: these plots are for pets only.

A black and white image of the original L.A. Pet Cemetery mausoleum from 1928. The mausoleum is situated on the side of a faraway hill, with a long walkway leading up to its door. Behind it, a sign reads "L.A. Pet cemetery" in large white letters.
A vintage photo of the original L.A. Pet Cemetery Mausoleum, built in 1928. The building has since been restored, and now has a red brick exterior.
(Burton O. Burt/Works Progress Administration Collection/Los Angeles Public Library Collection)

“I mean, we’ve had people come in and ask if they can have their own ashes scattered here,” says headstone designer Kathy Porcelli. “That’s not allowed, but it’s definitely interesting.”

The Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park was founded in 1928 by Dr. Eugene Jones, a veterinarian who mainly served Hollywood elites. Because of his work, Jones was determined that pets should receive the same dignity and ceremony in death as humans do. To make his dream a reality, Jones purchased 15 acres of land in the hills of Calabasas and set up shop.

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Jones’ own dog was the first to be buried in the pet cemetery, and his celebrity clients began to follow soon afterwards.

The sheer amount of stardom that has been laid to rest at the park likens it to L.A. landmarks such as the Hollywood Forever and Forest Lawn cemeteries. Just about every icon from Hollywood’s golden age up to now has had a pet buried there, and many of the animals have had pretty successful careers in their own rights.

Legend has it the remains of over 45,000 animals have been laid to rest at the L.A. Pet Memorial Park. Over 100 of these pets have belonged to celebrities.

According to park management, a popular grave to visit is that of Kabar, silent film star Rudolph Valentino’s Alsatian Doberman. After Valentino met his own untimely end at the age of 31, it is said that Kabar became inconsolable and died of a broken heart. Today, an elaborate bouquet of silken white roses adorns his grave, in honor of his loyalty.

A photo of the grave of Kabar, silent film star Rudolph Valentino's pet dog. The headstone reads "Kabar, my faithful dog, Rudolph Valentino, owner." Beneath the headstone is a bouquet of white silk roses and yellow silk flowers.
The grave of Kabar, silent film star Rudolph Valentino's famous pet dog.
(Zoe Ives for LAist)
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Some Hollywood icons, like Alfred Hitchcock, did not want their pets to have headstones for fear that their graves would be desecrated. This may have been what happened to the plot in which Mae West’s pet monkey, Boogie, is buried.

“It’s in the records that there was originally a headstone,” says park manager Stacy Tanner. “But one day it just disappeared.”

To remedy the lack of grave markers at these celebrity sites, Tanner has placed small tinsel Christmas trees above the pet plots. In Boogie’s case, the little silver tree is decorated with banana ornaments.

While there are plenty of dogs, cats, and even horses buried at the park, it is also home to quite a few exotic animals.

The most extraordinary include an alligator, whose ashes were interred in 1939, and Tawny, one of the original MGM lions. Tawny’s headstone is one of the largest in the park, and incorporates a small picture of the lion himself. Atop the lion’s back sits his best friend, a tom cat, who is buried at his side.

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At the time of its opening, Jones’ pet cemetery boasted mortuary facilities for animals to be found nowhere else in the world.

Photo of the cemetery's grounds from the top of the hill where the mausoleum is situated. There are floral arrangements decorating many of the graves, which are dotted between large willow and pepper trees.
The sprawling green cemetery hills are dotted with colorful floral arrangements.
(Zoe Ives for LAist)

Even today, their crematorium is unique in the L.A. area. Shannon Spirtos, the cemetery’s client relations manager, says their amenities only allow for private cremations. This means that they only cremate the remains of one pet at a time.

“We’re the only pet cemetery in the area that does that,” Spirtos says. “Some of the others offer partitioned cremations, but with those you’ll still end up with some of the ashes getting mixed together.”

From the crematorium to the front gate, the cemetery is truly a remarkable sight. Tucked between the willow trees, tombstones inscribed with humorous endearments glisten in the sunlight, and neon pinwheels whirr in the Calabasas breeze. It seems as if the park has always been here, and that it will always remain. But there was a time when the cemetery’s permanence seemed very much in jeopardy.

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In 1973, Jones’ family donated all 15 acres of cemetery grounds to the L.A. branch of the SPCA, an animal welfare nonprofit. Soon afterwards, the L.A. SPCA sold about five acres of cemetery land to real estate developers.

In response to this, a small group of local pet owners formed S.O.P.H.I.E. (Saving Our Pets History In Eternity), an organization dedicated to ensuring that the graves of their dearly departed doggies would no longer be disturbed.

In 1986, after years of intense lobbying, the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park became legally safeguarded in perpetuity. This means that the pet cemetery has been afforded the same legal status as a human cemetery, and it is permanently illegal for any development to take place upon the land. It is one of the only pet cemeteries in the country to have successfully secured this status.

S.O.P.H.I.E. still exists as a nonprofit whose volunteers work to preserve the park’s history. Shera Denese Falk, wife of the late actor Peter Falk, has served as the board’s president since 2015.

Today, the pet cemetery has five employees, and two of them are gravediggers.

Photo of Artemio Cristerna, the cemetery's oldest employee. He stands inside of a freshly dug grave with his shovel, and smiles at the camera. A bouquet of pink and purple silk flowers lies next to him above the grave he is digging.
Artemio Cristerna, the cemetery's oldest employee, stands inside of a freshly dug grave.
(Zoe Ives
/
LAist)

Artemio Cristerna has worked as a groundskeeper at the L.A. Pet Memorial Park for over 40 years, and is as much a part of the park as movie stars and paw print headstones.

“I’ve worked here since 1977. So yeah, I like it,” he says with a smile. “Every time I dig, I think: What if I find gold? You never know what you’ll find here. That’s why I kept coming back.”

It seems to be the consensus among all of the pet cemetery’s current employees that the place is filled with gold, in one way or another.

“Animals love us unconditionally,” Tanner says. “No matter who you are or what you look like, your animal loves you. That’s why it’s so different here than at human cemeteries. It’s just all love.”

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