WASHINGTON, Sept 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Jim LaMar’s border collie, KC, died in 2012, he had her cremated and kept the remains with him in his California home.
At the time, he had few other options in the area around Bakersfield - there had been a pet cemetery years earlier, but it had fallen into disrepair.
But in his job as president of Greenlawn Funeral Homes, which runs two human cemeteries in the area, LaMar said he kept meeting other people who also wanted somewhere local to bury their pets.
So, he eventually convinced his bosses to set aside an unused part of one of the cemeteries he oversees for pets of any kind - and last year, KC was the first one interred. Since then, five more families have buried their pets there, and more have inquired.
“People have told me, ‘I don’t want to bury my dog in the backyard because one day it might be a parking lot or a shopping center. I want to know I can go visit them with my kids’,” LaMar told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
More and more pet owners appear to feel the same way - and traditional cemeteries are taking notice, as the affection Americans have for their animals drives a boom in pet cemeteries around the country.
“There’s a huge industry in the human market for including pet cemeteries because people are seeing their pets more as family members,” said Donna Shugart-Bethune, executive director of the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories (IAOPCC).
That raises a concern for Patricia E. Salkin, a land use expert at Touro College in Illinois, who worries that local jurisdictions may be caught unprepared amid the rising demand.
Relatively few cities have specific regulations for pet cemeteries, she said.
“So what do you do with the growing interest of people in the U.S. who want to bury their pets or be buried with their pets?” Salkin asked.
“The message to local governments is to consider setting aside an allowable use for pets to be buried, with or without their owners,” she added.
While there are no official data or federal regulations regarding pet interments, Shugart-Bethune estimates there are about 700 pet cemeteries across the United States today.
Much of the recent boom was driven by a 2014 law change in New York state, which overturned a longtime ban against burying animals in the same area as humans, said Shugart-Bethune, whose organisation has members in 15 countries.
At least three other states have followed suit, she said.
“Ever since, there’s been much more interest toward human cemeteries having a section carved out for pets - it’s become an accepted and necessary practice,” she said.
Pet burials also let cemeteries tap into the billions of dollars pet owners spend on their animals each year, said Paul K. Williams, president of Washington’s Historic Congressional Cemetery, which also opened a pet section last year.
“I’m surprised it hasn’t happened before ... it’s a no-brainer. Every cemetery I’ve talked to is trying to find an area in their cemetery to accommodate pets,” he said.
The rate of pet ownership in the United States is among the highest in the world, according to a 2016 study by market research company GfK, with half of the population having at least one dog and nearly 40% living with one or more cats.
And those numbers continue to rise, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, which saw the country’s pet dog population grow by 10% in just six years, reaching nearly 77 million by 2018.
Across the United States, state governments regulate the business and public health issues around cemeteries, while local governments regulate the use of land, including what types of cemeteries are allowed and where, explained Salkin.
Shugart-Bethune of the IAOPCC said most of the calls she gets from local officials are requests for guidance on how to deal with pet burial grounds that have been abandoned and are to be redeveloped.
Pet cemeteries, typically started by families who love animals, have long been particularly vulnerable to land development, she said.
“If it’s not passed down through the generations, most people don’t come in and purchase or want to take over a pet cemetery,” Shugart-Bethune noted.
Her office is developing a model law to tackle that problem before it arises, including putting in place deed restrictions and a fund that can ensure maintenance in perpetuity, as required with a human graveyard.
‘WE NEEDED THIS’
Julianne Mangin, a former librarian with the Library of Congress, said twin trends historically sparked the growth of pet cemeteries.
She pointed to a shift from viewing pets as work animals to more like family members and urbanization making it harder for people to find open land to bury their pets.
For the past several years, Mangin, who is now retired, has been exploring and documenting the Aspin Hill Memorial Park pet cemetery in a Maryland suburb just north of Washington.
Aspin Hill, which was established in 1921 and is thought to be the nation’s second-oldest pet cemetery, has more than 53,000 pets interred in it, according to its website.
“I found the (tombstone) inscriptions for pets are a bit more effusive than you’d find on a human grave - they offer more information,” Mangin, who grew up near the cemetery, said in a phone interview.
Some famous pets are buried at Aspin Hill, Mangin noted, including Napoleon, the weather-predicting Persian cat, and Rags, a Paris street dog who became a mascot for U.S. soldiers during World War One and would warn them of incoming shells.
Aspin Hill, which is now owned by the Montgomery County Humane Society, an animal welfare group, has run out of space and is not selling new plots, according to the website.
But the grounds remain open to walkers, mourners and those nurturing old memories.
“People would come and decorate graves, and I’d look afterward and they’re coming back for pets that died 20, 30 years ago,” said Mangin.
That ongoing need for connection, even decades later, has prompted relief for LaMar’s clients in Bakersfield.
“People have been heartfelt” about the pet cemetery’s opening, he said.
"They said, 'we already needed this – there was no place like this, and it bothered me.'" (Reporting by Carey L. Biron @clbtea, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit news.trust.org)