In southwest Little Rock, beyond clusters of mobile home parks and body shops, at 11560 Dreher Road, sits a hidden copse of pines surrounded by a chain link fence. On a recent Saturday, the autumn light filters through the canopy of trees as a handful of people mill about, clutching bouquets of plastic poinsettias. This is Pet Land, Little Rock's little known — and only — resting place for loved ones of the pet persuasion.
A striking German shepherd, her neck ringed with Christmas bells, stands at the gate, head cocked, and then bounds off happily, jingling all the way. Today, Pet Land owner Stephanie Starnes and a loyal group of clients and friends are decorating for the holidays, a yearly ritual that brings together animal lovers of all stripes (and spots).
Starnes inherited the business from her aunt and uncle, Graham and Bonnie Kelley, who began burying pets there in 1963.
"Previously, a couple of vets had buried a dozen or so pets here and then sold it to my uncle. My aunt and uncle had other businesses and weren't interested in operating a pet cemetery for profit. The reason they opened it was because their beloved lab, Slugger, was getting old, and they wanted to be sure there was a dignified setting for his burial. They never even had a phone listing; it was word of mouth or vet recommendations."
Starnes took over in 1980. Though she had a full-time job as an art teacher, she steadfastly worked to improve the grounds, respond to emergencies and provide emotional support for family members — services she continues to offer grieving pet owners to this day.
Susan Menefee, kneeling by the gravesite of her beagle mix, Brandi Bear, who died in September, found out about the pet cemetery and discovered a kindred spirit in Starnes.
"I heard about Pet Land from a neighbor, and the first time I talked to Stephanie, I felt like I'd known her forever; she was so comforting." Brushing pine needles off the granite marker, Menefee sighs, "We just got her monument today."
Some of the names of the dead read like a list of Seven Dwarfs castoffs — Winky, Pokey, Little Bit — while others range from the regal, Prince von Eric Turner, to the more commonplace Spot. Still others inspire curiosity. Just who was this Mr. Poncho? Was Shawnette a frisky terrier? Luther a steely-eyed Weimaraner?
A few gravesites offer small glimpses into the lives of pets past: A stuffed bear — mud-splattered, deflated and damp — lies on the ground lashed to the gravemarker with a leash; a garden-gnome-size, weathered bulldog stands guard atop a monument, protruding underbite forever frozen in time; elsewhere solemn stone angels, eyes downcast, keep vigil.
Species who perhaps never mingled in this life peacefully reside together now. In addition to dogs and cats, birds, guinea pigs, ferrets and bunnies also call this their final resting place. (So far, there are no reptiles.)
Stephanie recalls one of her first clients in the early '80s, a couple from the Air Force Base who were grieving the loss of their beloved guinea pig, Rocky Hubert Smith. She offered to plant some tulips on his grave, and when she asked what color they preferred, the teary-eyed wife answered without hesitation, "Orange. It was his favorite color." Stephanie, smiling, shakes her head, "They loved that little guinea pig like it was a dog."
Stephanie attends to pet owners' every need, and even performs a graveside service for those who want one.
"Most times, people want to be there for the burial. I often read a prayer. Last week a family came for their cat's burial, complete with a printed program and various readings, songs and prayers. Sometimes a pastor or priest accompanies the family."
At the funeral of a Doberman pinscher, who was a retired patrol dog from a Memphis prison, the owner chose to recite T.S. Eliot and play Wagner.
Long-time client Sharon Bowling, wearing a Christmas sweatshirt with puppies on it, has five dogs buried here, the first in 1971.
"I love this place; it's everything to me," she says. Bowling produces a stack of photos of her "babies" from her purse. She lingers over one of her recently deceased 14-year-old lab mix, Chance, her gravelly voice quavering as she says, "There's my honey boy. I miss him so much, he was my best boy . . . my best boy."
When it comes time for Starnes to go on to that great pet park in the sky, her friend, Carrie Schatz, mother of the bell-bedazzled German shepherd, will inherit the cemetery — a responsibility she's more than happy to assume. For both women, Pet Land is a labor of love. Starnes reflects, "When my own dogs died it helped me to know they were buried with other pets who were loved."