CARSON — As manager of Pet Haven Cemetery, Harold Hand has had plenty of practice dealing with grieving--sometimes irrational--pet owners.
But not even seven years running the popular animal graveyard, the final resting place for nearly 29,000 pets, could have prepared him for the events of last week.
Crews working on a road-widening project on the western edge of the cemetery along Figueroa Street dug too far into Pet Haven, slicing open an entire row of tiny redwood caskets with a bulldozer and spilling animal remains into its path. At least five other caskets were crushed when several trees were cleared from the site, Hand said.
Nearly 300 pet owners rushed to the cemetery last week when they heard of the disinterment, and about 400 others called to check on their pets, Hand said.
"All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," said Hand, beleaguered but apparently retaining a sense of humor.
"We are having people coming in from as far away as Laguna Beach and Riverside," he said. "Some of them have taken off from work. And they are coming in here ready for a fight."
About 65 caskets were unearthed by the bulldozer, most of them of pets buried more than 20 years ago, Hand said. Pet Haven employees spent much of last week calling owners of the disinterred pets on the telephone, or in some cases, writing to their last known address. Late last week, however, employees had been able to contact just seven of the owners, he said.
"When they come in, they are somewhat hostile," Hand said of the stream of visitors, "but when they leave, most of them they are very understanding," including those whose pets had been dug up.
Pet Haven, which opened in 1948, has been a popular resting place for the pets of celebrities, including Tina Turner, Ella Fitzgerald, Jerry Lewis, Ava Gardner, Nat (King) Cole, Groucho Marx and mobster Mickey Cohen. Hand said none of the unearthed pets belonged to celebrities.
Pet Haven owner Elizabeth Galloway, who lives in Victorville, had hired the construction crews to widen the road, build curbs and sidewalks and construct a retaining wall at the edge of the cemetery, Hand said. Galloway wants to build a new office at Pet Haven, but city officials required that she first make the street improvements. Builders of new projects in Carson are required by ordinance to make such improvements, but Harold Williams, director of public works, said, "We had no way of knowing where the bodies are."
When construction crews began removing dirt to make way for the retaining wall, Pet Haven employees dragged dozens of tombstones away from the area to make sure they did not get chipped or cracked, Hand said. But no one guessed that the caskets beneath the ground were as close to Figueroa as they were, he said.
"The maps we used were made in the '50s and they were wrong," Hand said. "I had no idea the graves were out this far."
Hand said cemetery workers did the best they could to collect bones and other remains from the unearthed caskets and place them in plastic bags and boxes. The cemetery will replace the damaged caskets, he said, and he promised that "everything will be put back exactly the way it was"--when possible.
"Some (remains) had to be temporarily moved, but they have been marked and identified, and they will be returned as soon as the retaining wall is in," he said. Hand guessed that the pets will be buried early next week.
When construction began, Hand said, he posted signs near the cemetery that explained the situation, but he acknowledged that many emotional pet owners probably did not see them. He said many of the frantic callers and visitors were people who had heard--mistakenly, he emphasized--that the entire cemetery was being dug up.
Hand, who described himself as "tired," "limp," and "wrung out," said he was not surprised by the reaction of pet owners. "I understand their concerns," he said. "We have a lot of people who come out here once a week to visit their pets. They mean a lot to them."