All Good Dogs Go to Heaven

The connection between pets and their owners doesn't necessarily end with death

Shadows from the oaks sweep down across these few green acres of Southwest Houston, where barking guard dogs summon forth an unshaven man in a faded T-shirt.

Caretaker John Alpert silences the canine sentries and shows a visitor the Houston Pet Cemetery, open since 1938. Living in a cottage on the grounds, he has taken care of bereaved pet owners for the past 20 years.

"A lot of it is just keeping things in order for them. This is a special place for people, you know." Though the grounds are well groomed, he half apologizes. "Had to bring up some of the markers after all that rain a while back." He stares downward, apparently as much in respect for the deceased as to examine the plots.

"Over here," he says, pointing to a grave marker. "Here's the area where it all started ... This one's been with us since '39." According to the headstone, it was Mrs. H.D. Wilson who put Spot to his final rest.

Tiny American flags riffle in the breeze. Ginger, who died nine years ago, has a line of them in honor of Veterans Day. She also has a primitive scarecrow and softball-sized pumpkins, leftovers from Halloween.

"They like to bring them things on the holidays," John explains. "A lot of these people like to do that, to do something to show they still care. You know, that they haven't forgotten or anything."

Forgetting pets was impossible for the handful of arrivals at the Houston SPCA shelter on a late fall evening. Gathered in a tight circle of chairs in a vast gray room, they listened intently as counselor Elaine Calaway introduced another session of the little Pet Loss Support Group.

"This is your group," said Calaway, who resembles a kinder, gentler Hillary Clinton. "This is your time. I'm only here to facilitate the process." Calaway tells them that, for some people, the death of a pet can be worse than losing a parent or other close relative. "The loss of either kind can open severe grief."

A former pediatric nurse, Calaway had been nearing completion of a doctorate in counseling psychology when she experienced a crisis of her own. It wasn't enough that she and her husband were separated and awaiting divorce; she and her kids had to face the deaths of their Brittany spaniel dogs.

Their 13-year-old dog, Maxine, began suffering seizures. When the dog's condition turned critical, Calaway talked to her daughters, 7 and 9. They discussed Maxine's options and their own feelings. The family chose euthanasia.

At the vet clinic, the girls said their good-byes. At home, they held a a small ceremony and scattered ashes in the flower bed. A few months later, they repeated the ritual when vets found an inoperable tumor in the Calaways' other dog, Gretchen, 12.

Calaway's vet watched the reasoned approach by the family and the girls making rational decisions amid the grief. Impressed, the vet told Calaway that the SPCA and the Harris County Veterinary Medical Foundation were considering pet grief counseling sessions. He asked if she would be interested in volunteering as a counselor.

From her previous education, Calaway knew that psychologists have long taken pet grief seriously. In 1978, a University of Pennsylvania research project established that bereavement can be as strong for the death of an animal companion as it is for the death of a human. The University of California at Davis pioneered the first pet-grief hot line ten years ago. In its first year, it received 850 calls; one study indicated that between 4 and 22 percent of callers had considered suicide.

Sympathy and support are automatic with the death of a relative or close friend. Employers offer time off, and mourning is encouraged. "Even though a pet can be as close or closer than any of them, the response by others to that death is different," Calaway says. "They may say it was 'only' a dog or cat. In truth, it may have been the person's closest companion."

Calaway thought about the vet's offer. And since April 1997, she's greeted the grief-stricken public at 7 p.m. on the first Tuesday of every month.

Lois Cowan Rische had no bereavement group when her black Labrador Iris died in 1993. But she had her car and her memories of their times in the Texas Hill Country -- and she had a small ivory-colored plastic urn filled with Iris's ashes.

The dog had first appeared on the porch of Rische's Montrose home in 1981. That was during the jazz party on the 70th birthday of her husband, Allen, a retired Central Intelligence Agency field chief. He later began a frightening seven-year decline from Alzheimer's disease, as detailed in Rische's book, The Mariachis Are Gone.

Rische trained Iris to bring her husband food -- even bottles of beer -- and to look after him until his death in 1992. Then the dog died after a long struggle with cancer. Rische and her son wrestled a concrete statue of Saint Francis of Assisi home from a Hempstead roadside business. It was intended to be the grave marker for the dog, but Rische refused to go through with the burial plan.

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