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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Veterinarian to the Stars Brought Pet Cemetery to Life

April 20, 2003|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

"He was a progressive veterinarian who helped elevate the primitive dog and cat storefront business to a top-notch hospital," said Dr. Norman "Lou" McBride, 86, a retired Pasadena veterinarian. "He was about 5-foot-6 with a mustache and a charismatic personality. He was a great man known for the love, care and affection he gave animals. When he said he had to leave a party early to check the white-cell count of an animal, he meant it." Jones eventually sold his veterinary practice, but his brother continued to run the mortuary and slumber room. The business was displaced by a new Hollywood Freeway onramp and relocated to Cahuenga Boulevard before finally moving to the cemetery in 1969.

In 1968, in a teary farewell, students at Elysian Heights Elementary School bade goodbye to their beloved furry feline friend -- named Room 8, for the room he entered by an open window in 1952. A fixture at the school for 16 years, the celebrity gray-and-white alley cat had posed for countless pictures, including one that was emblazoned on school T-shirts.

Room 8, the unofficial school mascot, became the subject of a school mural; a sculpture and several poems etched into the sidewalk in front of the school; a TV documentary called "Big Cats, Little Cats"; and a 1966 illustrated children's book called "Room 8," written by the school principal, Beverly Mason, and teacher Virginia Finley. Royalties from book and T-shirt sales went to the library fund, and a trust fund was set up in Room 8's name at the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital.

Students who once decorated his newly dug grave with handpicked flowers have returned to the pet cemetery over the years to say their "hellos."

But it was a story in My Weekly Reader that brought Room 8 10,000 fan letters from the nation's children.

"He was like the swallows of Capistrano," said Mason in a 1968 newspaper story. "He disappeared all summer, but the minute school started, the day the first bell rang, down the street he'd come. On the first day of school, every newspaper and television station in town showed up at the crack of dawn to watch this cat appear from out of the hills."

In 1973, seven years before Jones died, he donated the cemetery to Los Angeles' Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But a decade later, another group of animal lovers panicked when the SPCA considered selling the cemetery to developers. Fearing their pets' graves would be disturbed, they outmaneuvered the developers and bought the cemetery.

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 by successfully pressing for a state law that protects pet cemeteries from outside development.

Currently, the cemetery's crumbling mausoleum is undergoing renovation. The $175,000 project, adding 450 more niches, a waiting garden and a fountain, will be dedicated Sept. 4, 75 years to the day after Jones buried the first pet.

For all the famous four-footed creatures buried at the cemetery are beloved. Many are marked with effusive epitaphs no longer seen in human cemeteries: "Lupi, My dear best friend, I'll never forget you." "Timi, he was the sunshine." "Girlie, our dear little tiger, so full of life yet so little time. Sleep well."

And for Corky, a police bomb squad dog who died in 1983: "Our number one," his headstone says. "Your partner, Jimmy."

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