Surprising spot for a holiday wonderland: Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas
The messages of love aren't just carved in stone at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park. This time of year, they're embellished in bold splashes of red and green.
For nearly five weeks every Christmas and Hanukkah season, this final resting place for the four-legged and famous suspends lawn mowing and weed-whacking so people can decorate. Up pop miniature Christmas trees, poinsettias, flowered garlands, photographs of beloved pets and tiny pet-shaped statuettes in even tinier Santa hats.
"We decorate the graves because they are in our hearts. It feels like they are still with us," said Marvin Rouillard, 69, of Winnetka.
The character actor and his partner have visited the park, nestled on 10 hillside acres 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, every Sunday since their 14-year-old golden retriever, Baron, died in 1986. As they added cats Missy, Snow and Runt, the decorations became more elaborate. This year, he has a garland around the grave sites, several small trees and wreaths made out of bells.
"We used to put up 7-foot trees with all the ornaments," he said, "but no matter how we tried to anchor it all down, the winds would blow them away."
There are plenty of celebrity residents buried in the 81-year-old cemetery -- Hopalong Cassidy's horse Topper, Petey the dog from "Our Gang," Humphrey Bogart's dog Boots and Charlie Chaplin's cat Scout.
Other stars who have buried their pets at the park include Steven Spielberg, Bob Newhart, Diana Ross, Tori Spelling, William Shatner, Rudolph Valentino and Lauren Bacall.
Rain put a damper on decorations this year, but the park is still ablaze with color. Years when there is no rain, the park turns into a fairyland, with flowers, trees, cards, pinwheels, wreaths, wind chimes and toys galore, said David Stiller, president of the cemetery's board of directors.
There are only two rules: You can't go beyond the boundaries of your pet's grave, and no candles.
Some 30,000 pets are buried here -- pet lizards and salamanders, birds, ferrets and goats, pigs, chimps, horses and even a lion. But 90% are dogs and cats, Stiller said -- including three of his own.
The tombstones and headstones express more than names and dates. They convey feelings too. For example, a message for one pet: "My love, my beauty, my goofy-goof, my best friend, sweet brother. My heart aches so deeply without you.You will be with me for all eternity. Loving. I love you so very much. Mommy."
Patrice Kiedaisch, a dog fancier from Simi Valley, has four dogs -- Duffy, Lily, Tristan and Jake -- at the cemetery. "They are really kind there. They give your animals a lot of respect. And you feel taken care of."
The tradition of decorating the graveyard at Christmas makes sense because people grow especially lonely at the holidays, said Stephanie LaFarge, senior director of counseling services for ASPCA Animal Health Services in Urbana, Ill.
"Pet cemeteries tend to be utterly beautiful, joyful places. I don't know what it is -- the markings on the gravestones or the pictures or something," she said.
When Rouillard's pets were alive, Christmases were crazy with toys and play. "It's lonelier now," he said.
He used to have lots of neighbors at the cemetery, but some have passed away, and others have moved. One went to Texas to get married.
"Every once in while, she will write and ask me to check on her little boy. I send her a picture," Stiller said.
But Rouillard still comes every week, rain or shine.
"They are our kids, our little furry children," he said. "They never ask for anything, they never lie to you. Their love is unconditional."
-- Associated Press
Photos, from top: Headstones are decorated for Christmas and Hanukkah at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas. Jay Kessler decorates his dog's tombstone for Hanukkah. Marvin Rouillard decorates his pets' grave sites for Christmas. The headstone for Rudolph's Valentino dog, Kabar. Credit: Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press