HOT DIGGITY DOG

Doing the graveyard shift at a pet cemetery

 

BY COREY LEVITAN   

       This particular column began as a way for me to perform a disagreeable job that someone ultimately must do for most of us: digging a grave. On my way down I could confront my own sense of mortality, glom some buzz off of HBO's new black comedy "Six Feet Under," and maybe even find Jimmy Hoffa.  

       That idea now rests in peace thanks to a lack of cooperation from every local cemetery I contacted.  

       "Do you have any openings ... in the ground?" I asked.  

       Despite the popular stereotype of the cemetery owner as fun and adventuresome, none of them  dug my proposed undertaking.

       "I'm a little concerned with what the story would consist of," said a staffer at Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach. "We have to be hypersensitive about the way people are going to take this."

       So I rang Pet Haven in Gardena. General manager Mike Detlefsen was game, probably thanks to a full-page story this paper did on his animal cemetery last year.  

       I could still confront my mortality by digging an animal grave for a story. I mean, I've had serious pet death issues. There are no less than three guinea pigs -- Rusty, Squeaky and my hardest loss, Snowball -- buried along the side of my parents' house on Long Island.  

       The Pet Haven grave I am to dig is for Coco the cockerspaniel, whose funeral is the following morning. I don't know much about Coco, other than his or her dimensions must be smaller than 18" by 36". Detlefsen is hesitant to arrange an interview with Coco's owners.

       "This is a hard time for people who have lost pets whom they love," he says.  

       I always loved dogs myself, but have never owned one. I begged my parents from the ages of  5 through 13, but they said I would get bored of the novelty and end up not taking care of it.

       "You're wrong!" I lied.  

       If only they had told me that my guinea pigs were trial runs for dog ownership instead of consolation prizes, I might have fed them more. It got to the point where those rodents squeaked only when my mom entered the basement room that reeked of their uncleaned feces. They knew who put the alfalfa pellets on their table.  

       Some 28,000 pets are interred at Pet Haven, which opened in 1948. The grounds are dotted  with beloved pot-bellied pigs, iguanas, snakes, monkeys and skunks. The animals are buried not  according to species but according to the families of their owners. (In the afterlife, dogs and cats can lie together just fine.)  

       There's even a rooster, named "Rooster," who lived from 1964 through 1971 and brought his  owners "love and peace," according to the headstone.  

       One animal they don't have at Pet Haven is cows. Those can be had at Hamburger Haven  instead, on Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood. Detlefsen is not a vegetarian, incidentally. When asked what the difference is between ol' Rooster and the extra-crispy special at KFC, he responds, "About $3.99."  

       "That's a horrible thing to say," says Julie Rouse. "Don't put that in your article." Rouse and her husband Ronald, who live in Torrance, have owned Pet Haven since 1988. Detlefsen is the husband of their daughter, Cindy, who is also a general manager.  

       Coco's new neighorhood is strictly upscale. Nearby are furry and feathered friends of the rich and famous including reputed gangster Mickey Cohen's English bulldog, Mickey Jr., whose 1960 funeral included bodyguards and plenty of firepower. Nat King Cole's boxer, Mr. Pep, and Ella Fitzgerald's pooch, Easy, have places at Pet Haven, as do Groucho Marx's two poodles, Soto and Dreamboat. Jerry Lewis and Chuck Norris each buried eight pups here, and Ike and Tina Turner have a great Dane somewhere on the cemetery's 3 acres.  

       Pet Haven also boasts an animal famous in its own right. Lady is the horse Michael Landon saddled up in "Bonanza," a pinto mare who rode into her final sunset in 1968.  

       Jose Perez grabs a prefabricated rectangle of wood, etching out a frame for my dig with a heavy iron shovel. The 36-year-old resident has been digging graves and keeping the grounds at Pet Haven for 5 years, as well as serving as mortician and crematorium operator. And he was thrilled to hear about his lightened workload this morning.  

       Carefully he slices the dirt under the sod with his shovel, making a big square that can be replanted later. Perez then orders me to move the sod.  

       "Now you have to break up the dirt," he says, handing me the shovel. I attempt to follow instructions, eagerly. Both Rod Stewart and Ozzy Osbourne were gravediggers not long before achieving rock stardom. Perhaps I have hit upon a secret fast track to fame and fortune.

       "Dig straight into the dirt, not sideways," Perez cautions, trying to prevent me from denting some neighboring creature's coffin.  

       The cost of an average Pet Haven funeral is $475, including ceremony and a wood casket but  not a headstone, which runs about $260. The price becomes more attractive when you consider that the most popular alternative is illegal. It is against the law to bury animals in your own backyard, Detlefsen claims, "even though people do it anyway." (Thanks, mom and dad, for placing me on a criminal path in the third grade.)  

       Only 10 minutes into my assignment, Detlefsen and Perez are riding me like a "Bonanza" horse.  

       "You're not digging hard enough," Detlefsen barks. "You said you really wanted to do this.  Now do it!"

       Although pet graves are only about 28 inches deep (compared to 6 feet for human ones) I have made little headway. Most of the time I swing it out of the hole, my shovel is empty, the wet dirt weighing more than I anticipated.

       Still, that doesn't stop the wheelbarrow in which I've been dumping my dirt from tipping over, spilling the old landfill all over the $1000 grave of poor Baby, a dog of unknown breed who shuffled off his mortal leash in 1997.  

       Detlefsen threatens to place me inside a pet coffin.  

       "We have a number 10 that will fit you, you know," he says, referring to the size he uses  for St. Bernards.  

       It is not a threat to be taken lightly. Indeed, three humans are buried at Pet Haven. It is legal to inter people in a pet cemetery, it turns out, as long as they're cremated first.  

       "Honestly, people care more about their pets than they do about other people," Detlefsen told me earlier. "We've had people who have willed their life insurances to the cemetery."  

       Neither Detlefsen nor Rouse would reveal the identities of the people resting peacefully alongside Rocky the poodle, JoJo the ferrett and the like. But it can be safely assumed that none of them is Joey Ramone, since the recently deceased punk-rock pioneer did not want to be buried in a pet cemetery (according to the lyrics of one of the Ramones' best-known songs).

       Whether Rob Schneider, the "Saturday Night Live" alum currently starring as "The Animal," would have to be cremated or not is a question that warrants further investigation.  

       Right now, at least, Perez has grown upset at my reading the other graves and writing so often in my notepad. He was told I would do all his digging today.  

       "You take too many breaks," he says, completing the hole for Coco's grave on his own about 30 minutes later. (His record is 20 minutes, start to finish.)  

       Perez is later asked to rate my gravedigging skills. On a scale of one to five, five being best, he gives me a "no comment."  

       "Make sure my picture is bigger than yours in the article," Perez says.

 

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