The young woman cradled a stuffed teddy bear in her arms and blinked back tears as she walked through the cemetery.
"This was his favorite toy," Lucinda Inzunza said, fingering the fluffy white bear. "He loved to play with it. I kept it after he died."
Lucinda wasn't mourning a lost child as she gazed at marble grave markers spread beneath her feet at the Gardena memorial garden. The 16-year-old La Puente girl was remembering Buster, her 2-year-old German shepherd. She had come to Pet Haven Cemetery to arrange for his burial after he was hit by a truck.
Lined with tiny headstones inscribed with such eulogies as "You Were Mommy's Little Baby," pet cemeteries have been a Los Angeles fixture for 60 years.
For much of that time, Los Angeles County's two animal graveyards have been viewed by many as further proof that Southern California is a land of wacky excesses.
The manicured gardens have had a reputation for attracting eccentric old people--those with both the inclination and the means to spend hundreds of dollars to memorialize dogs and cats that have been longtime, faithful companions.
But things are changing.
"We're seeing younger faces now," said Mary Bayer, manager of Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas. "More young people are bringing their pets. For many of them, this is the first time they've ever dealt with death."
Said Julie Rouse, co-owner for the past year of Pet Haven: "I'm surprised. We have just as many young people as older people."
Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park was started in 1928 by a woman who decided to bury her family's pets in the corner of a cattle grazing range in Calabasas, at the western edge of the San Fernando Valley.
Pet Haven was created in 1948 in Gardena by a pet owner who was upset that a lack of water in Calabasas prevented him from growing grass over his dog's grave there.
The image of dotty elderly ladies gathered in pet cemetery "slumber rooms" over satin-lined caskets containing poodles named Fifi have amused many, including English author Evelyn Waugh. His satirical 1948 novel, "The Loved One," which later became a movie, was set in a Southern California pet cemetery known as the "Happier Hunting Ground."
But pet cemetery operators say their clientele is growing younger partly because of the way Los Angeles has changed.
More young pet owners than ever live in apartments or condominiums. That means they do not have back yards in which small dead animals can be discreetly buried--a practice that, in any case, does not pass muster with municipal zoning laws.
Lucinda Inzunza called Pet Haven when Buster was killed after bolting from the apartment she and her mother share. "He was an inside dog. He didn't know to fear traffic," Lucinda said.
The dog's remains were cremated. Later, Lucinda traveled to the Gardena park to reserve a burial plot and make arrangements to pay the $150 cremation interment fee in installments.
"I don't have all the money right now," she said.
In Calabasas, recently married Shannon and Alan Griefer buried their 15-month-old German shepherd, Max, on Thursday after the dog died while undergoing corrective surgery to its paws. Griefer, 29, had presented the dog to his 28-year-old wife as an engagement gift about a year ago.
"He gave us so much, this was the least we could give to him," Griefer said of the $841 service.
"Younger people are bonding with pets now," said Wendell C. Morse, a South Bend, Ind., veterinarian who is executive director of the International Assn. of Pet Cemeteries. His group has counted about 400 pet cemeteries in the United States.
"Younger people today are being better educated," he added. "They understand the value of a pet and the process of grieving when that pet dies."
Cemetery operators say that animal rights advocacy has an effect on many young owners of pets. When their animals die, they shun animal shelters and veterinary offices, some of which dispose of dead animals by selling them to rendering plants that produce such items as animal feed.
Animal activism can be felt at both Los Angeles County pet parks.
"Stop animal experiments so our deaths will not have been in vain," urges the stone inscription over the graves of "Baby Doll" and "Teddy Bear" in Gardena.
At Calabasas, animal lovers who feared that their pets' graves would be dug up for a new tract of luxury homes rallied three years ago to buy the 10-acre cemetery themselves.
They organized under the name SOPHIE--for Save Our Pets' History in Eternity--and raised $100,000 to pay for the land. They lived up to the "eternity" part of their name by successfully pressing for a state law that protects pet cemeteries from outside development.
As a result, a court order now is required before dedicated pet cemeteries can be used for any purpose except animal burials. To get such an order, a developer would have to gather written authorization from the owners of all pets buried there, or their heirs.