CALABASAS – When it comes to our pets, even the most cynical, nihilistic or evil among us get all teared up and sappily sentimental when their beloved companion shuffles off this mortal coil.
Hey, Hitler doted on his dog, Blondie, and Saddam Hussein was said to be a major cat fancier.
So, truly, pet lovers span all generations and idealogies.
But there's a certain type of human companion who is a breed apart, who so venerates his dearly departed fluffy, scruffy or scaly amigo that he will drop major coin to make sure it is laid to rest with all the pomp and ceremony of a state funeral.
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These are the people whose pets occupy the nearly 40,000 plots – and expanding, of course, since death is a recession-proof growth industry – at the 85-year-old Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park and Crematory, 10 acres of verdant hillside freeway close in the San Fernando Valley.
It is said to be the nation's second-largest pet cemetery – a park in New York City gets top billing – and, this being L.A., it is saturated with celebrities.
That's celebrities of the four-legged variety. At least one of the "Petey" terriers from the old "Our Gang" movies calls this place home, as does Tawny, the lion who acted in "Tarzan" films, and Hopalong Cassidy's horse, Topper.
"A lot of celebrities bring their pets here," said Marie Beavers, second in command to park manager Emad Whitney. "Some we can talk about; some we can't. Privacy, you know."
Humphrey Bogart's dog, Boots, is here, not far from Rudolph Valentino's Great Dane, Kabar. Charlie Chaplin's cat, Scout, has a plot, as do various species of pets belonging to such noted celebs as Peter Falk, William Shatner, Diana Ross and Lauren Bacall.
"We also have the horse from the original 'Lone Ranger' movies somewhere, and of course, you've got to see Tawny the lion," Beavers said. "He's got a huge headstone with a photo of him with a (house) cat on his back. Apparently, they were raised together, and now they're buried together. We've got everything here: fish, turtles, squirrels, lizards, chimps, ferrets. A lot of hamsters. We've even got a boa (constrictor). We don't discriminate."
There are, alas, no maps of celebrity plots, but Beavers offered to get someone from the ground's crew to lead me to the notable resting places. But not before she showed off the dazzling array of caskets for animals of all sizes, from an itty bitty mouse to a hefty hippo.
"We have carbon fiber caskets, and we have a gentlemen here who makes custom pine caskets all the way to expensive hardwood, like you would find for a human," said Beavers, who handed me a price list ranging from $699 to $1,115. "We can put most anything in there except horses. Horses don't go in caskets."
The natural question is: Why do it? But Beavers takes the query almost as an affront.
"Listen," she said, "I've been in the death-care industry a lot of years, with humans. I was an embalmer and a funeral director. I've been working here about a year, and I see a lot of similarities.
"We have to bury our humans, OK? We don't have to bury our pets. But people who come through this door, their pets are very important to them. They become children. They replace children. They replace spouses. They become that important. That's why we have a viewing room, where visitations take place, and why we hold services."
Some are simple memorial services with a tasteful burial; others more lavish.
"We started having butterfly releases – a mass release or individually wrapped (butterflies) so each person releases it – at services," Beavers said. "Dove releases, too. I can get you a rabbi, a priest, anyone you want. I'll get you a limo. Whatever you want. Why can't we do it for our pets if we do it for our people?
"A lot of people come in and ask, 'What's normal?' I say, 'Forget that. What do you want? I can get it for you as long as it's not too illegal or too immoral.' "
Each month, pet lovers from throughout Southern California are invited to the memorial park for a candlelight vigil at dusk to remember the departed. The procession begins at the St. Francis of Assisi statue and ends at the hillside mausoleum. People tell their stories. It often gets emotional.
"We had a woman whose cat died, mauled by two rottweilers," Beavers said. "Her grown son blamed the woman. The woman's friend said, 'It's an animal. Pets are property. Get over it.' But this woman couldn't stop crying (at the vigil). She told her story through her tears, and I almost started crying because it was like a Lifetime movie. Every one of the 50 people at the vigil came up and hugged her."
The heartless might dismiss this as wretched excess, as people with too much money wallowing in First World problems.
But here's a challenge: I defy you to spend a half an hour strolling the grounds here, reading the headstones and not be moved by the genuine feeling expressed.
Some are simple: "1958-1974. Our Fifi. She gave so much and asked for so little."
Some are elaborate: "Elby. August 1990-June 2005. My sweet Elby, an extension of me in another form. Keep my place next to you in heaven warm. I cherish you with all my heart and I will see you soon. Your loving mom, Vicky."
And some, like this headstone inscription for a cat named Borden (1985-July 10, 1999) just begs for further explanation, maybe even novel-length treatment: "Borden. Died of uremic poisoning at 3:30 a.m. due to kidney failure 7 hours before he was to be euthanized and it's all my fault. Richard."
My favorite headstone, though, is one of the oldest and simplest: "Sport 1928-1937."
LOS ANGELES PET MEMORIAL PARK AND CREMATORY
Where: 5068 Old Scandia Lane, Calabasas
Information: (818) 591-7037; www.lapetcemetery.com
Call The Bee's Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145 Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.