Humane society struggles to maintain pet cemetery
Aspin Hill Memorial Park, resting place of celebrity and local pets as well as some pet owners, has fallen on hard times again.
Old cedars and oaks stand sentinel with small statues of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals, scattered amid waves of high grass.
Creeping ivy obscures the few details about one of the interred, Togo, who died in 1936 in the depths of the Great Depression.
Near one gate, an old unlicensed car sits against a brushy hedge across an overgrown driveway from a boarded-up brick house.
The Montgomery County Humane Society, which runs the pet cemetery in Aspen Hill, is feeling the brunt of the recession. By its own admission, upkeep at the cemetery has suffered. It's reached a point where officials hope a volunteer group will come to the aid of the cemetery.
"We, like most other organizations, are down in donations and are struggling to do what we can to keep the status quo," said Jo Ann Hoffman, chairwoman of the humane society, which also operates the county's animal shelter in Rockville.
Mowing at the cemetery has taken a back seat to running the society's own rescue shelter, also in Rockville, where public hours have been reduced by as much as half, Hoffman said.
All told, gifts to the humane society are down about 15 percent, she said, but have not affected operations at the county shelter, where the society still augments the county contract with contributions.
As the organization struggles to weather the deepest economic downturn since the cemetery accepted its first burial almost 90 years ago, Hoffman said she hopes a group "like the Boy Scouts" will volunteer to help the longtime caretaker of the property with its mowing and other maintenance.
It's a tough turn given the dreams the county humane society had when it took deed to the property two years ago.
The society became the third animal welfare group to take on responsibility for the property after Dorothy M. Shapiro of Potomac, who purchased it in 1988 to prevent it from being developed, sought someone else to care for the 8-acre cemetery, which had fallen into disrepair.
Last year, the humane society's then-chief executive officer J.C. Crist talked about making the cemetery a center for humane animal education. But four months later, Crist, who had lost the support of many board members, was out. The county condemned the property, declaring a house and other buildings unfit for habitation.
The humane society sought, and the county granted, an extension that gives the group until March 2010 to make repairs or face demolition of buildings, including a house, which date to about 1921, when the cemetery was established.
"What we don't have from the humane society is a plan for fix up or restoration," said Scott W. Reilly, chief operating officer of the county's Department of Housing and Community Affairs.
"We don't know what we're going to do, but we're looking at options," said Hoffman, adding that she expects the board will have a plan later this summer.
Hoffman said it likely will take at least $250,000 to rehabilitate the house. She declined to discuss what the "options" are but said money the organization was counting on from would-be benefactors has not come through.
All told, thousands of animals are buried in Aspin Hill Memorial Park, yet there's space for more. Among those interred are a few dozen humans.
But the humane society cannot sell plots now, in part because their officials "don't have records of where everything is [and] don't know where the plot lines are," Hoffman said.
"They've told us they are not conducting business on the property," Reilly said. "We'd like to give them some time — it's an awfully quirky place. We'd hate to lose something like that in Montgomery County."
A child-sized obelisk marks the site where "our little pal Micky" apparently also was interred in 1936.
A shoulder-height mausoleum holds Mickey ("No other can ever replace our precious pet"), flanked by a birdbath inscribed for "Bootsie."
The cemetery also is home to the Fur Coat Memorial, established when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals operated the property, before PETA decamped to Virginia in the mid-1990s. And the Medical Rats Memorial.
It's the final resting place of Rags, mixed-breed terrier and mascot of the Army's 1st Infantry Division. Rags trekked past enemy lines to carry a note to Allied forces during World War I.
Buried there, too, are four-legged veterans of the Alexandria (Va.) police K-9 corps.
And FBI director J. Edgar Hoover's dog Spee-de-Bozo, and allegedly, General Grant, aka "Jiggs" or "Petey," the one-black-eye-patch canine of Little Rascals fame, though a Hollywood graveyard also lays claim.
Still none seem more cherished than those who once lived in local households.
"Love thy neighbor, we did" reads the headstone inscription for Choo-choo and Smut, who lie a short stroll from Monsieur Cognac — "True Gentleman Poodle."