Elizabeth E.W. Kirk has planned to be buried alongside her mother, Beatrice, and her family dogs at the Rosa Bonheur Memorial Park in Elkridge, believed to be one of the world's first pet cemeteries to allow people to be laid to rest with their animal companions.
Her name is already set into the grassy turf there, on a bronze plaque with a photograph of her as a young woman snuggled in bed with five dogs.
But now the 69-year-old worries that her final resting place may have to be someplace else. A developer has asked Howard County to change the zoning on the 7.8 acres of grass and trees along U.S. 1 for a project that may include homes, stores and offices.
The developer has said he'd prefer to leave the cemetery as it is, if possible, but many with an interest in the 78-year-old burying ground are skeptical.
About two dozen people are buried at Rosa Bonheur and perhaps thousands of animals, including the Baltimore zoo's first elephant, a dog whose World War II service earned him the rank of corporal, mascot dogs for the former Washington Bullets basketball team and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer's canine companion, Willie.
Kirk, president of the Animal Welfare League of Greater Baltimore, wrote to the county Planning Board that she "vehemently opposes" the proposed zoning change — her letter is one of 23 emails and letters in the official record, all from opponents to the change.
Earlier this year, the Planning Board voted to recommend the change, with a condition that "if the property is redeveloped, the cemetery be accommodated in an appropriate way."
Opponents don't find that language reassuring and are looking for help from the Howard County Council, which is scheduled to make a decision Thursday as part of a countywide comprehensive zoning package.
"It's like saying to the fox, we want to allow some accommodation when we let you into the henhouse," said James Lanier, whose partner, Candy Warden, is president of the Rosa Bonheur Society Inc., a group of volunteers who have taken care of the cemetery for about six years.
Volunteers try to keep the grass at bay, but even with their efforts it's easy to miss the bronze plaques, which lie flat on the ground.
"Sometimes when things get too overgrown, we come through here with a metal detector" to find the markers, said David Simpson, a volunteer who buried his 14-year-old brown-and-white mixed-breed dog, Scruffy, at the cemetery in 1992.
"There are plaques all over," said Warden. She does not have a pet buried there but estimates the cemetery contains the remains of thousands of animals including dogs, cats, guinea pigs, a pigeon, parakeets, canaries, rabbits and horses.
Because people and animals are buried next to each other, Warden said, she doesn't think any development could take place without disturbing graves.
State law establishes procedures for moving human remains, as does the Cemetery Preservation Act of Howard County. But no such legal standards exist for animal remains, said Marilyn Harris-Davis, executive director of the Maryland Office of Cemetery Oversight.
Harris-Davis said that despite the presence of human remains, Rosa Bonheur is classified as a pet cemetery.
Named for a 19th-century French artist who specialized in realistic animal images, Rosa Bonheur was opened as a burial ground for animals in 1935. In 1979, it made national news by becoming what was believed at the time to be the first pet cemetery in the world to also allow human burials.
Warden said at least 25 people have been buried there and at least three sets of human cremated remains have been scattered on the grounds. No burials have taken place since 2003.
Located between Route 100 to the north and 175 to the south, the cemetery is a good location, said developer Donald R. Reuwer Jr. He said he wants to leave the cemetery as is, but there are no plans drawn yet and it's too soon to say how a project design might take shape. Much will depend on how many pieces of land the developer can put together for the project and how much land can be set aside as open space, he said.
"We want to treat everything sensitively," said Reuwer, president of Land Design & Development in Ellicott City. "There is no intention to go in and dig up animals" or to move remains to a mass grave.
He said he envisions working with the Rosa Bonheur Society to identify graves to try to preserve as many as possible. For the graves of people, he said, "The intention is to identify where humans are and plan around them."
In the 1980s, more than 100 pet graves were moved to Rosa Bonheur by then-owner William Anthony Green to resolve a legal dispute at another pet cemetery he owned. Green's troubles mounted in the 1990s when he filed for bankruptcy after civil and criminal charges were brought against him by the county on behalf of pet owners who said they paid for services that were not delivered.
In 1997, a Circuit Court judge ordered Green to pay about $20,000 to pet owners for grave markers they never received and for giving owners cremated remains from the wrong animals. In 1997, the cemetery was sold at auction for $219,500 to the Bonheur Land Co., owned by Gunter Tertel. He died in 2011. Reuwer said the land is now owned by Tertel's estate, and his company has a contract to buy it regardless of the outcome of the rezoning effort.
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