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Sorrento Valley Cemetery a Final Resting Place for Pets

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like the quiet eye in the center of a hurricane, a tiny plot of land lies in the midst of Sorrento Valley’s growing industrial complex.

Overhead, the roar of traffic echoes from Interstates 5 and 805 as drivers jockey for position. Across narrow Sorrento Valley Road, Amtrak trains rocket by with increasing frequency and freight trains rumble through the night. Each weekday morning and night, the macadam road carries a bumper-to-bumper cargo of valley workers.

But none of this human uproar bothers the residents of Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery, 1 1/2 acres of serenity. Here Fifi and Fido rest beneath metal markers (flush to the ground so they don’t interfere with the lawn mower) and the cremated remains of beloved kittens and parakeets rest in a mini-columbarium.

In all, there have been 157 burials--some complete with satin-lined coffins and services in the tiny chapel--during the cemetery’s 35 years. In addition, there have been more than 5,000 cremations in the pet-sized crematorium.

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Velma Matthews, who bought the land in 1978, said there is no threat that the remains that have been resting here since the first pet burial in January, 1956, ever will be evicted. But modern buildings are rising nearer to the site and the pet cemetery crew must stay ever alert to prevent huge moving vans from a company next door from parking on the cemetery grounds.

“Little services are about all we can handle,” said Matthews. The tiny chapel can hold about four or five humans and the pet’s last remains. “We sometimes just have a normal, simple interment outside. Or sometimes we have the pet on view in the chapel, where the family can say their last goodbys.”

A statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, stands near the chapel, but Matthews stresses that the chapel is non-sectarian. She recalls one service in which a rabbi eulogized the departed pet.

B.J. Shelton of San Diego settled for a simple interment for Shawna, her 19-year-old Irish setter and “my best friend.”

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Shawna joins 17 other Shelton pets in the plot, many of them Brittany spaniels, which Shelton’s late husband favored, but others were just pick-me- ups that joined the family and won a lasting place in the Sheltons’ hearts.

“There is a lot of love in there,” Shelton said, indicating the plot where her departed pets are resting. “We talked about it and we agreed that we wanted to know just where they were.

“We knew that they would be safe here,” Shelton said. The Sorrento Valley pet cemetery has the same perpetual zoning protection as a human cemetery, she explained.

When Shelton visits her pets, she often strolls a few yards beyond to tend the grave of Hoover the Sparrow.

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Hoover was just an ordinary sparrow that earned a place in the heart of a widow by perching on the window sill and watching television with her. When, after nine years of companionship, Hoover died, its benefactor gathered it up and brought it to the pet cemetery for burial.

“I haven’t seen her around for a while,” Shelton mused about Hoover’s mistress as she pushed away the grass encroaching on Hoover’s tiny brass marker. “She may have gone on. So I sometimes leave flowers here too when I come because I think it is a touching story.”

Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery’s most recent celebrity burial occurred a few months ago when the Oceanside Police Department’s K-9 Corps turned out in full uniform to bury Irk, a four-year veteran of the force who was credited with assists in 28 arrests.

Irk, a German shepherd, had chased a suspect into a ravine and into the water, where the man was trying to hide. Irk apparently caught pneumonia, went into convulsions and died.

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At Irk’s funeral in February, Officer Chris McDonough, his handler, McDonough’s wife and three children looked on as Oceanside K-9 officers stood at parade rest and their charges sat at attention while Irk’s coffin was lowered into the ground.

“It was a very touching ceremony,” Matthews said. “We had a number of calls from people asking if it would be open to the public. I decided not to do so because we have such a small parking area and it was crowded with police cars.”

Near the entrance to the pet cemetery, a tall double-trunked sycamore tree shades the pet memory wall, where plaques commemorate beloved pets whose ashes have been scattered there.

According to the pet cemetery’s advertising brochure, cremation is available for any type of pet, from small ponies (250-pound limit) to tiny baby birds. A variety of urns are for sale if grieving owners want to keep their pet at home. Cremation costs from $40 up, depending on the size of the pet.

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“We only do individual cremations,” Matthews said, describing the steps taken to ensure that every owner ends up with his or her own pet’s remains and a simple metal tag identifying the deceased.

The small crematorium with its tall black smokestack is licensed by the San Diego Air Pollution Control District.

“They were very good to us,” Matthews said of the APCD. “No restrictions on our permit. We are a fully licensed pet crematory.”

The permit restrictions do cause some distress to bereaved clients, however, because crematory rules do not allow the cremation of a pet’s favorite blanket or toy along with the body. A collar or bow-ribbon might be allowed, Matthews said, but nothing that could create ash and pollution.

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Paper flowers dot the graves that stretch across the wide cemetery lawn, and on Memorial Day weekend, small U.S. flags were set for visitors to decorate the tiny grave sites.

A funeral plus burial costs about $500, with a $10 yearly charge for care of the plot. If a person fails to pay the yearly fee for five years in a row, the pet’s remains can be removed and the land reused, Matthews said. It happens, she said, when families move away or when youngsters grow up and forget their childhood pets.

Cemetery staff will pick up dead pets on a 24-hour basis, with an extra charge for after-hours services.

“We collect the animals in style, in a station wagon,” Matthews said proudly, “not in a pickup truck as some do.”

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“San Diegans are very lucky. Although there are only about 500 pet cemeteries in the world, we have two of them right in this area,” Matthews said. She said that only about 1% of pet owners seek burial or cremation of their pets after death, “but they are a very special group.”

The other area pet cemetery, San Diego Pet Memorial Park, is only a few miles away, east of Interstate 805 near Miramar Road. It was started in 1962 by former employees of the Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery, Matthews said.

B.J. Shelton concedes that “a lot of people might make fun of it, caring so much for a pet. But, I don’t care.” When her husband passed away nine years ago, Shawna was there for her.

“She kept me from going crazy,” Shelton said. “She was my best friend.”

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