By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
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.
Instead, she had Iris cremated. For weeks, Rische could not bring herself to pick up the ashes at the animal clinic. On the way to a solo October retreat in the Hill Country, a clinic worker tucked the plastic urn box in her trunk.
"I don't have any good reason to explain it, but I took the ashes everywhere I went on that trip. I know it seems strange now, although I didn't even think about it at the time."
Her cigarbox-sized urn accompanied her into inns. She put it next to her during cafe meals and even carried the box into bathrooms.
When she returned to Houston after a month, Rische said the grief was gone.
But so were the ashes.
Rische searched her car. She looked through the trunk and her suitcases. She believes she left the urn in the restroom of an Exxon station somewhere in the Hill Country. She thought of calling various places where she had stopped or stayed, then dismissed that as futile. "I realized it might have been a subconscious sign that I'd gotten over my grief. I felt like I had reached closure. It was time to move on."
She has moved on in life. St. Francis decorates her lush back-yard flower garden. Honey Mutt, the dog she adopted from the SPCA soon after the trip, is her constant companion. "The kids said, 'You need another dog, Mom.' They were right."
One of those at the SPCA support group, Rebecca Bertrand, started to speak of her dead cat, Tom. She hesitated for several seconds, fighting for control, before her words gave way to eerie sounds. A whimpering cry turned into a moan like that of an animal.
She sobbed, then half laughed, then apologized. Her outburst had shaken tears from the others.
Bertrand, with husband, Jay, by her side at the session, cried for her Siamese cat named Tom. The stray wandered into their lives nine years -- and probably nine lives -- earlier. Tom was her constant companion through her bout with abdominal cancer and the business trips of her husband, a communications worker.
Early this year, she noticed Tom's mouth sores and weight loss. After a series of tests, vets diagnosed the problem as liver cancer. Rebecca took vacation days and cooked chicken for the cat, but the condition worsened, and vets convinced her it would be "a gift of love to let him go."
On March 11, Rebecca cradled Tom and could not stop crying as Jay drove their car to Home Depot. He selected lumber and materials for a suitable coffin. Then they all went to Petsmart. Tom was dead before the vet there finished the injection of bright pink fluid.
Under the limbs of a peach tree where the cat used to lounge, Jay dug the small grave. He placed a wooden cross, carved with Tom's name , and they prayed that Jesus would take care of Tom as His own until Rebecca could make it to heaven.
Conventional wisdom -- to get another pet if one dies -- had been mixed for Cordelia Winston, a young and self-assured schoolteacher, as well as committed dog-lover.
Winston said she has a strong circle of friends and family but most enjoys the devotion and companionship of a canine.
"That kind of relationship is totally unconditional. You can do anything to them, and they'll always come back to you, and they won't begrudge you," she said. "If we could only be so forgiving."
She explained: "We wear masks every single day. You don't really know if what another person is telling you is the truth or anything. Dogs are completely honest, every day."
Shakespeare, the family's chocolate Labrador in Winston's youth, died in 1996 from a fungus infecting his blood. She said she was horrified that her parents had buried him at their home in Laredo while she was still in San Antonio on a teaching assignment.
Winston drove from San Antonio and threatened to "unbury" Shakespeare. She settled for staying at the grave through the night, wedging locks of hair, pictures and a blanket into the burial soil.
Nine months later, her mixed breed Barfy -- named for his habit of throwing up when she first found him -- died from a tumor at age 13.
She grieved and found a vocal basset named August.
Winston considered the dog her closest friend, although she was startled twice by nightmares. She dreamed the basset was in a grave, and Winston was trying to cover August with dirt. "In that one, I was saying to her, no, obviously it is better this way; to do it like this. She'd come out, and I'd bury her again." In another, August squealed and bled profusely as Winston applied pressure to a massive wound. She told August she was just "going to have to die."
Winston assumed these were symbolic messages that she was having to give up some aspects of her past to accommodate her recent marriage and career moves.
In September, August was spending time with her family in Laredo while Winston was working in Houston. The dog lost a few pounds, and the family took him to the vet, but Winston said her mother assured her the dog was fine.
But when Winston's husband brought August to their home in Houston, Winston knew immediately the dog was seriously ill. She limped. Her spine was curving awkwardly. The vet in Laredo confirmed that August had bone cancer.
The next morning Winston drove August from Houston to Laredo. The vet euthanized the dog that night. August, three years old, now rests by Shakespeare and Barfy. And Winston has become foster mom to another basset.
In the pet grief session, Winston said she still has difficulty talking to her mother and wonders why she didn't tell the truth about August's condition.
"Do you two need to work out this 'mother issue'?" counselor Calaway asked.
"Yes," said Winston. "I've got a lot of 'mother issues' to work on." The group laughed. Calaway concluded the group session with optimism.
"You've shown you know how to give and receive love," she assured them. "If you felt that once, you can get there again."
Back at the Houston Pet Cemetery, caretaker Alpert makes his final daylight rounds.
A large man, his work boots still step lightly among the small markers. He passes by the plots for Dude, Boy and Fido, not far from the rows with Napoleon, Vodka and Picasso. Tiny plastic or glass ovals embedded in some gravestones show owners and animals embracing.
Over 20 years, Alpert has encountered the living as well as the dead here. Strays came and stayed. An owner leashed one dog to a tree and left him to be discovered. Alpert adopts them. He had four watchdogs at one point.
"They weren't special-trained or anything, but they did good," he says. "One of 'em, he died just before my birthday. I hated to lose him like that."
As he makes his way through the cemetery, the two living mixed breeds trail him. "I think it means more to them, the dogs, to be able to protect their own kind," John says. "That's the way it ought to be.