Veterinarian to the Stars Brought Pet Cemetery to Life
When the veterinarian who professionalized animal care in Los Angeles decided to extend pet care into the afterlife, he buried his own dog in what would become the first pet cemetery in Los Angeles County.
Dr. Eugene C. Jones’ celebrity clientele would soon follow his lead, bringing their beloved Droopys and Bootses to a small corner of a cattle-grazing range in Calabasas.
Lined with tiny headstones inscribed with such eulogies as “You Were Mommy’s Little Baby,” “Smut -- Our Loyal Companion” and “Tarche -- For 15 Years the Scourge of Hargrave Drive,” the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park has been a final destination for dearly departed four-legged souls for 75 years.
Among its 42,000 graves, crypts and niches are enough stone obelisks and shrines to make the grassy grounds into a kind of “pets of the stars” tour. Its animals of the famous include Topper, Hopalong Cassidy’s horse; Droopy, Humphrey Bogart’s dog; Boots, Charlie Chaplin’s cat; Scout, Tonto’s steed from “The Lone Ranger”; Petey, the black-eyed dog from “Our Gang”; and Spot, dog of “The Little Rascals.”
Alongside theirs and lesser-known graves containing monkeys, birds and a salamander who lived to be 18, lone buglers have played taps, bands have performed and full choirs have sung as the surviving dogs howled mournfully, while friends and colleagues bade farewell to their faithful friends.
The 10-acre manicured grounds have long had a reputation for attracting the eccentric as well as the notable. The image of dotty elderly ladies gathered in the “slumber room” over satin-lined caskets containing French poodles named Fifi has amused many, including English author Evelyn Waugh. His satirical 1948 novel “The Loved One,” about life and death in Los Angeles, was chiefly a sendup of Forest Lawn, but it makes reference to the Calabasas pet cemetery. Waugh described it as the “Happier Hunting Ground.”
The cemetery, hidden among lush rolling hills and an industrial park off the Ventura Freeway, was once part of the estate of Hollywood financier Gilbert H. Beesemeyer, who embezzled $8 million from the Guaranty Building and Loan Assn. in 1929. But before his estate crumbled and he went off to begin serving a 40-year sentence at San Quentin, he subdivided his property into several 10-acre plots, one of which Jones purchased.
Jones, who graduated from Washington State College with a degree in veterinary medicine in 1924, moved to Los Angeles, where he opened one of the city’s first small-animal hospitals, the E.C. Jones Veterinary Hospital on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Los Angeles. Four years later, as a service to his clients and as a way for them to deal with their bereavement, he opened the Los Angeles Pet Park and a Hollywood pet funeral parlor.
While Jones ran the hospital, his mother, Mattie, and his brother, Rollins, drove pets in a hearse from the Highland Avenue mortuary 20 miles away for burial at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley.
In 1929, the Joneses built a brick mausoleum, which included a columbarium and crematory. A spot for embalmed pets like Pee-Chee, Jigg Fargo, Ching Ling and John Tio cost $400; single grave sites of 1 1/2 feet by 4 feet cost $12.50. Coffins started at $7.50, and cremation upward of $17.50 -- a pricey venture during the Great Depression. But even then, there were people who spared no expense for their pets, alive or dead. Pet funerals soon caught on with the Hollywood set, and pet obituaries were regularly published in newspapers in the 1930s.
Screen idol Rudolph Valentino’s huge dog, Kabar, was one of the first animals buried at the park. At the time of Valentino’s death in New York in 1926, Kabar was living at Valentino’s Falcon Lair estate in Benedict Canyon. Witnesses say he apparently intuited the death of his master and wouldn’t stop howling and running around in circles. Three years later, Kabar followed Valentino to the grave.
Valentino, a great dog lover, was incensed when one of his ex-wives, Winifred Hudnut, accused him of hating her Pekingese dogs. Not so, said Valentino -- she was the one he hated.
Visitors to the pet cemetery over the decades have reported feeling licked or hearing panting near Kabar’s resting place. They also say they have spotted the mysterious annual visitor to Valentino’s own tomb, the Lady in Black. Sometimes she adorned Kabar’s grave with daisies or a single rose, just like his master’s grave, but without leaving lipstick marks on the stone.
Atop a hill, under pepper and eucalyptus trees, is an imposing stone monument to Tawny, a lion who died in 1940. “His adored tomcat pal sleeps beside him,” says the inscription on the headstone, which frames a sepia photo of a dyspeptic-looking lion with a striped tabby crouched on his back.
Jones’ cemetery notion caught on. Pet Haven Cemetery and Crematory in Gardena opened in 1948 to become a second L.A. County pet cemetery. Jones understood what the loss of a pet brought -- grief, pain and emptiness.
“He was a progressive veterinarian who helped elevate the primitive dog and cat storefront business to a top-notch hospital,” said Dr. Norman “Lou” McBride, 86, a retired Pasadena veterinarian. “He was about 5-foot-6 with a mustache and a charismatic personality. He was a great man known for the love, care and affection he gave animals. When he said he had to leave a party early to check the white-cell count of an animal, he meant it.” Jones eventually sold his veterinary practice, but his brother continued to run the mortuary and slumber room. The business was displaced by a new Hollywood Freeway onramp and relocated to Cahuenga Boulevard before finally moving to the cemetery in 1969.
In 1968, in a teary farewell, students at Elysian Heights Elementary School bade goodbye to their beloved furry feline friend -- named Room 8, for the room he entered by an open window in 1952. A fixture at the school for 16 years, the celebrity gray-and-white alley cat had posed for countless pictures, including one that was emblazoned on school T-shirts.
Room 8, the unofficial school mascot, became the subject of a school mural; a sculpture and several poems etched into the sidewalk in front of the school; a TV documentary called “Big Cats, Little Cats”; and a 1966 illustrated children’s book called “Room 8,” written by the school principal, Beverly Mason, and teacher Virginia Finley. Royalties from book and T-shirt sales went to the library fund, and a trust fund was set up in Room 8’s name at the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital.
Students who once decorated his newly dug grave with handpicked flowers have returned to the pet cemetery over the years to say their “hellos.”
But it was a story in My Weekly Reader that brought Room 8 10,000 fan letters from the nation’s children.
“He was like the swallows of Capistrano,” said Mason in a 1968 newspaper story. “He disappeared all summer, but the minute school started, the day the first bell rang, down the street he’d come. On the first day of school, every newspaper and television station in town showed up at the crack of dawn to watch this cat appear from out of the hills.”
In 1973, seven years before Jones died, he donated the cemetery to Los Angeles’ Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But a decade later, another group of animal lovers panicked when the SPCA considered selling the cemetery to developers. Fearing their pets’ graves would be disturbed, they outmaneuvered the developers and bought the cemetery.
They organized under the name SOPHIE -- for Save Our Pets’ History in Eternity -- and raised $100,000 to pay for the land. They lived up to the “eternity” part by successfully pressing for a state law that protects pet cemeteries from outside development.
Currently, the cemetery’s crumbling mausoleum is undergoing renovation. The $175,000 project, adding 450 more niches, a waiting garden and a fountain, will be dedicated Sept. 4, 75 years to the day after Jones buried the first pet.
For all the famous four-footed creatures buried at the cemetery are beloved. Many are marked with effusive epitaphs no longer seen in human cemeteries: “Lupi, My dear best friend, I’ll never forget you.” “Timi, he was the sunshine.” “Girlie, our dear little tiger, so full of life yet so little time. Sleep well.”
And for Corky, a police bomb squad dog who died in 1983: “Our number one,” his headstone says. “Your partner, Jimmy.”