The Last Kennel

Let 'er R.I.P.: Buddy and thousands of other four-footed friends have been laid to rest in Roseville
Christopher Peters

Winter again. Animals on the move. People as well. Freeways. Whap. There goes a doe. A big red smear on the concrete. A pile of bloody limbs on the shoulder. The usual carnage. Scooped up eventually, or dried into dark shreds of skin among the weeds.

Meanwhile, not far away, a minivan stops at roadside. A woman in jeans and plaid shirt hurries into a cemetery, carrying a small glass jar stuffed with backyard flowers. She has trouble finding a small marker among scores of imposing headstones. Finally, scraping away fresh-turned earth, she kneels by marker 3285. She half-buries the vase and arranges the flowers.

"Today would have been his 16th birthday," she says. "We buried him here 10 days ago." He was a black Lab named Mergie who is now dead-center under an acre or so of polished headstones, homemade memorials, and the remains of more than 7,000 birds and other animals. This is Memorial Pet Cemetery, operated by the Humane Society of Ramsey County at Highway 36 and Dale Street in Roseville.

Talk about your hallowed ground. Parakeets here. Guinea pigs. Squirrels. Possibly a horse. Maybe even a person. At least that's what Ida Fabyanske has heard, and Ida knows about as much as anybody. Her great-grandfather homesteaded a small farm hereabouts and later sold a few acres to a veterinarian named Dr. Feist, who in the 1920s split off part of his garden as a pet cemetery and hired Ernest Eide as part-time caretaker. Ernest then passed on his duties to his wife's cousin Ida's husband, Ken Fabyanske, who took care of things until around 1982, when the job went to his son-in-law, Jim Westby. Ida is so much a part of the plot, she gets a Christmas card every year from Arizona, bearing the name of a cat her husband buried years ago.

It's illegal to dig a hole for your pet in the back yard or toss it in somebody's dumpster. There are cremation services that will incinerate your pet and place the ashes in a decorative urn. But Memorial is one of only two places in the metropolitan area where an animal can be laid to rest with all the trimmings of a human burial ground. (The other, Animals Inn, is attached to a pet boarding facility in Lake Elmo.)

A history of Memorial is hard to come by, largely because it was a private facility until it was donated to the St. Paul Humane Society in the mid-'80s. Ida says she heard stories about a horse buried somewhere, but nobody knows where. She says horses were banned years ago because of space limitations.

Lore also includes the tale of human ashes somewhere on the premises. Ida denies any knowledge. Says her husband got a call from a woman in Duluth who wanted to know if it would be OK for her ashes to be placed in the plot with her pet dog. Ida's husband asked around and found that burying a person's ashes would be permissible as long as health regulations were followed. Ken retired a short time after the initial inquiry and Ida said she never heard what eventually transpired, except for a phone call from an irate husband in Duluth.

The cemetery is orderly and well-groomed, but clearly the policy is not to bother the bereaved with a bunch of regulations. Near a sign that says: "NO FENCES, GLASS CONTAINERS OR CRUSHED ROCKS" is a plot fenced with white plastic chains and topped with crushed white rocks, glass vases, and six wreaths including one bearing the inscription "Beloved." All in memory of three departed pooches: Suzette, Stinker, and Winker.

The cemetery's basic package--a plot, simple marker, and burial--costs $250; the Humane Society requires a casket, which can range from $40 for your basic fiberglass to $400 for handcrafted oak. No Tupperware, old cigar boxes, etc. You can order a formal headstone, which will run between $160 and $210 and includes an engraving depicting the species or breed and 40 characters in which to express your sentiments. There is also evidence of homemade headstones, some including a snapshot of the deceased. If you want a church person involved in the affair, that's your own doing. Ida says one ceremony wound up with a catered buffet under a big striped tent.

On a small stone under a pile of matted leaves, the inscription reads: "Zelo 1913-1924. Owner: Krank." Newer headstones often bear more elaborate inscriptions: One says, "We Never Told Him He Was a Dog." Another reads: "Too Well-Loved to Ever Be Forgotten." Underneath it lies a squirrel named Babette.

A large headstone bears the words: "Smokey--a Bedwell Boy. A flat-coated retriever obtained from Guide Dogs for the Blind. San Rafael, Calif. May 22, 1971--Oct. 14, 1980. I thank you for devoting your life to my welfare and safety. Herb." Down the row lies "Champ 1965-1976. He asked for nothing and gave his heart. Rest well brown eyes." Next to that stone is one engraved: "Jeremy 1973-1983. Champ is close by, so rest easy little fella."

Unabashed sentiment owns this place. There are a number of statues of St. Francis, but the focus here is not on the animal world at large. No tomb to unknown roadkill. No goats, pigs, or sheep. These are memorials to creatures who transcended the role of "pet." The headstone for Bonnie and Clyde--both born on February 26, 1977, and lost within four months of each other in 1988--says "My Best Friends."

Most numerous are the lap dogs. Ching. Chee-Chee. Tuffet Punker. Bok Choy. Caesar Snookums. The stones often say: "My Little Baby" or "Until We Meet Again." Cats are outnumbered, and their inscriptions are brief and measured, carefully avoiding eternal feline disdain.

Some headstones mark collective graves. Putsy, Billy, Toby, Mickey, and Spunky rest together under one stone bearing the inscription: "We'll Never Forget You." They were parakeets. Cotton and Krinken, born November 15, 1971, wound up here within a few weeks of each other five years later under the words: "You taught us how to love." Guinea pigs.

The woman stands looking down at the flowers on Mergie's grave. She says, "When we knew he was going, I wrote him a letter and read it to him as he lay there on his blanket. I told him I was going to leave it up to him that night. I didn't want to make the decision of when to go for him. The next morning he was gone.

"We got him when he was 4 months old. He saved my life in the surf once in the Virgin Islands. When one of our friends was working on the renovation of the St. Paul Hotel, he called up and said they found a scrawny stray cat in the rubble and did we want it. We said sure, and that's how we got Fudman. The two of them were great friends. Chased each other around the house. When Mergie would have enough, he'd just sit on Fuddy until the cat calmed down." Now the dog is sitting on the cat forever. Fudman went into the plot at Memorial last year.

Back outside the cemetery, a bloated raccoon carcass rests on its back alongside a newly constructed median on Route 96. This week workmen have been rolling out sod in the median. Raccoons have come every night and rolled the sod back up, picking grubs from the moist, exposed soil. Something like the new fast-food drive-throughs farther down the road. Steep price for the grub combo, though.

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