As Halloween approaches, people start to think about cemeteries—and the Coachella Valley has no lack of them, including the burial spots of numerous celebrities and other luminaries.
Yet the most intriguing cemetery of all, where some of the desert’s most beloved denizens have been laid to rest, remains nary an afterthought to even longtime residents. This would be Haven for Pets on Dillon Road in Desert Hot Springs, one of the oldest continually operating pet cemeteries in California—and to this day, the only officially licensed animal graveyard in Riverside County.
Pet cemeteries represent a curious subset among burial grounds. Many people know little to nothing about them, being more familiar with the fantasy horror version of them thanks to Stephen King. They are, in fact, a relatively new idea. Sure, people have been burying animals as far back as ancient times, and millions of animals were mummified and laid to rest in Ancient Egypt alone; many other cultures had similar practices. But these were sacred animals being offered to gods, not pets as we would know them.
Actual pet cemeteries were a long time coming. Churches prohibited the burial of animals in the same ground as humans, so unless a person was wealthy enough to own a private estate on which they could establish their own small animal graveyard, people were forced to dispose of their pets in the trash or dump them in rivers or lakes. Some people resorted to surreptitiously burying their animals in public parks in the dead of night in order to give them a more sympathetic end.
But in 1881, a dog named Cherry died in London. Since her favorite place to romp was Hyde Park, the bereaved owners asked the keeper of the Victoria Gate, who lived in a small house inside the park grounds, if they could bury her in his lawn. He agreed. Other people whose pets had passed away approached him with similar requests, and he continued to agree. It wasn’t long before there was a flourishing cemetery next to his cottage.
When the gatekeeper’s lawn was full, a much-larger burial ground for animals was opened an hour north of London in Molesworth; soon after, one was founded in Paris. Others were opened in Germany and Holland. The United States didn’t lag far behind, with the first public pet cemetery opening in Hartsdale, N.Y., in 1896. Americans embraced the idea, and over the next couple of decades, similar burial sites popped up all along the East Coast.
It would be a couple of decades more before pet cemeteries made it to the West Coast. The most prestigious of the early ones was founded in Calabasas in 1928 as the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, catering to a wealthy clientele. As the idea traveled west, however, it took on new permutations. The cemetery in Calabasas is more traditional, mirroring the look and feel of a standard human cemetery—but others in the west were more akin to the pioneer cemeteries, ad hoc burial grounds with little administration or maintenance. Others sprang up on the outskirts of army bases or on Native American land; yet others were attached to local humane societies or other organizations that catered to animal lovers. Falling in that latter category was the cemetery on Dillon Road, opened as an extension of a kennel known as Dogtown USA, in what was then North Palm Springs.
The impetus for the local pet cemetery dates back to the death of a war hero in 1956: Fritz, a heavily muscled German shepherd, was born in 1939. At the time, the country’s military-dog program will still in its nascent stages, so when World War II broke out, promising dogs like him were offered up by their families for service. Fritz initially served as a sentry dog with the Coast Guard, but was later transferred to the Army, where he put in a three-year stint. A natural leader among dogs, he provided new recruits an example to emulate in order to teach them how to climb barricades and complete difficult jumps.
After the war, Fritz was retired to his family in Palm Springs—with an honorable discharge and a certificate of faithful service. But when the aches and pains of a long life finally overcame the warrior at the age of 17, there was no place to bury him with due honors. Fritz was cremated, and the local newspaper noted with sadness how the lack of a local pet cemetery meant that there would be no sounding of taps or final military honors for one of America’s great dogs. Other people ruminated over this injustice, too. The desert towns were becoming increasingly modern and sophisticated, and certainly their residents loved their pets no less than people in the big cities. Wasn’t it about time for a pet cemetery in the Coachella Valley?
Building and caring for a pet cemetery wouldn’t be easy, however, especially in the challenging desert climate. But the idea wouldn’t die, and an anonymous donor even contributed $20,000 to the local Humane Society, with the stipulation that part of it go toward founding a cemetery for animals. Finally, in 1961, it was decided to build one adjacent to Dogtown.
In the 1950s, Dogtown was a full-service, first-class operation, owned by an Englishman named Joe Dabbs, who had gotten his start as a veterinary assistant at a Beverly Hills animal hospital and then made a name for himself grooming celebrities’ dogs. The desert offered him a similar clientele, and Dogtown had a monopoly on well-heeled patrons from Palm Springs, including Liberace and Louella Parsons’ daughter, Harriet.
Grooming was only a small part of Dogtown’s services. The facility had a hydrotherapy pool for canines, believed to be the only one in the world, and 30 fully air-conditioned kennels (each with its own 25-foot run) for long-term boarding. At the time, it was typical for people who left Palm Springs due to the scalding heat of the summer to board their dogs instead of take them with them. If this sounds callous, it must be remembered that commercial airline traffic out of Palm Springs was scant, and the highway system was less developed—so depending on where one was headed, Fido might be in for a long and very unpleasant drive. But Dogtown offered a humane solution, being a place where canines (and felines–despite the name, there were eight cat kennels in addition) could take their own summer vacation in luxury. Since there was plenty of vacant space nearby, it seemed the obvious location for a pet cemetery.
Dabbs sold Dogtown off to another pair of Beverly Hills transplants in 1959: Charles and Jane Stewart, who had for 12 years attended to a similar high-end canine clientele while operating Hollywood Kennels near Santa Monica Boulevard and Doheny Drive. Planning for the cemetery began: A 2 1/2 acre parcel was laid out fronting the east side of Dillon Road, and the cemetery was named Haven for Pets, even though it is now more commonly referred to as Pet Haven. By 1964, pets were being laid to rest; nearly 2,000 have been placed there since.
Anyone who has ever had a pet die—and this would be most Americans—knows the pain involved in their passing. It involves not only grief, but also a feeling of failure, as the pet owner is left to watch helplessly as a companion that gave its love unconditionally and from the innocence of its heart withers away; when they are gone, a hole is left that can be very difficult to fill. All this is exacerbated by the human-centered nature of our society. Even though the vast majority of people understand the pain all too well, the deceased animal’s owner is expected to carry on as usual, since it was “just” a dog or cat or what have you. Further, there are no accepted rituals to mark the passing of an animal like there are with humans. This can make closure all the more difficult—but burial is in itself a form a ritual, a means by which grieving pet owners might find some measure of solace and a place to return to as a means of remembrance.
People in the pet-cemetery business know this full well. They are dedicated to meeting this need, and the owners tend to be people whose hearts are filled with gold—and whose wallets are decidedly not, because no one has ever gotten rich off of animal funerals. Passed down through the Stewart family and now owned by Charles Jr., Haven for Pets is indeed not a profitable venture. It loses money as often as it makes it, and much of the upkeep is thanks to volunteers. But from the outset, the cemetery was as much of a public service as a business. Catering to a far more humble clientele than Dogtown’s salon, the going rate for burials in the early days was only $35, and wooden caskets were handmade on site and simple. (In fact, they still are, by Charles Jr.’s son.)
But the presence of the hoi polloi didn’t put off the celebrities. Liberace placed six of his dogs here, under headstones that list their owner as “Lee,” a nickname common among his close friends. His fans sometimes come by to this day and leave flowers on the graves, or little totems related to their owner. Other prominent pet owners include Michael Landon, who has a dog buried here, as does composer Jimmy Van Heusen, the winner of four Oscars for Best Song.
But the most notable burial of all is a golden retriever by the name of Liberty, the companion of President Gerald Ford. Given to him by his daughter Susan as a puppy in 1974, Liberty remained the nation’s first pet for the duration of Ford’s presidency. By all accounts a loving and delightful dog, Liberty was popular with the Washington press corps and frequently photographed alongside the president. In addition, she made history on September 14, 1975, as the first dog to ever give birth in the White House. From her litter of nine puppies, one was kept by the president. Named Misty, she is buried alongside her mother. Liberty’s grave gives Haven for Pets a rare honor: The only other first pet in a publicly accessible pet cemetery is Richard Nixon’s dog Checkers at Bideawee Pet Memorial Park on Long Island.
Let us not forget about cats, because one of America’s most heroic felines rests here as well. Samantha was a stray black kitten who walked into a Vallejo, Calif., apartment building in 1971. One of the families living there took her in—a good thing, as it turned out: Five years later, a fire broke out in the middle of the night. Fast asleep, the 44 human residents were unaware, but vigilant Samantha smelled the smoke. She started mewing wildly to wake up her own family, and then ran out into the hall and howled until she had woken up the entire building. Everyone escaped, and she was awarded a medal for heroism from the American Humane Society. Her family later settled in Rancho Mirage, and she was buried here when she passed in 1982.
But death is ruthlessly democratic, and walking through the rows of stones, the high and mighty are no more prominent than the humble pets alongside them. In fact, it is often the latter who stand out, since an animal does not need fame or distinction to earn a human’s love. “The most perfect best friend.” “Always loving, always there.” “There will never be another like you.” “You were my only friend.” “You gave everything and asked for nothing.” “More dearly loved than life itself.”
Nowadays, the grounds often seem in disrepair, although probably they always did, even at the outset. It’s the desert, after all; the grass is frequently dead in patches, and the stones are often covered over with sand in the never-ending battle against the winds. But visitors who see the cemetery as ramshackle are looking with their eyes instead of their hearts, because the latter cannot help but find the true beauty of this hallowed ground—found in the love that is expressed here. That love is why local residents more than a half-century ago were so determined that there be a pet cemetery here—and why it is still here today, even though the rest of Dogtown is long gone.
Paul Koudounaris has a doctorate in art history and is the author of three award-winning books about the visual culture of death. In addition, he researches and publishes on the history of domestic animals. His forthcoming book, A Cat’s Tale (MacMillan/Holt, 2020) will be a feline history narrated by his cat Baba, with whom lives in Yucca Valley.