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County’s only pet cemetery turns 60 and has seen its better days
Pet Rest Cemetery
Pet Rest Cemetery at W. Hatch and Carpenter roads is a far cry from how the originator designed it in 1962. - photo by Jeff Benziger

There is little tranquility settling over the hundreds of gravesites of dogs, cats, birds and raccoons in the Pet Rest Cemetery – the county’s only pet cemetery located three miles west of Ceres.

Adjacent to the busy intersection of Carpenter and W. Hatch roads, the serenade of disk brakes squealing against rotors, acceleration of engines, diesels belching out exhaust and occasional horn honking for the driver distracted by their cell phone as the light turns green, cancels out any quiet from the Tuolumne River flowing nearby.

Sixty years ago the final resting place of beloved pets was intended to be a pleasant green final resting place of pets in the quiet countryside. Not only has the passage of six decades resulted in wider roads and more traffic, but grave visitations are rare given that time has also claimed the owners of dogs and cats buried there.

Pet Rest old photo
An early photo of Pet Rest appeared in an advertisement in the early 1960s.

When K.E. Peele opened the cemetery in 1962, green grass carpeted the area between the headstones, many which were affixed with bronze markers. With no water service, management or endowment care, Peele’s establishment is now barren and uninviting. Thieves have robbed many of the graves of their bronze plaques – including the one for “Skipper Edmiston” (1949 to 1967) which appeared in an early Modesto Bee clipping.

The defunct Pet Rest barely gets a mention on the internet. A 2019 webpage titled, “A Complete List of Pet Cemeteries in the United States,” fails to mention it while mentioning the Franklin Pet Cemetery in Merced as being the next closest one.

Only one person on the planet seems to care about the pet graveyard. Emerging from an outdoor bed in an encampment, just feet from the sidewalk Peele poured 60 years ago, a weathered Kimberly Winchester comes out to chat with those who stop by.

The 51-year-old high school dropout is the cemetery’s self-appointed caretaker. She said she is homeless by choice, and besides, somebody needs to keep an eye on the place to ward off troublemakers.

Kimberly Winchester
Kimberly Winchester, who considers herself the owner of the Pet Rest Cemetery while records say otherwise, looks after the Hatch Road burial ground. She is homeless and lives on the site, even burying pets on a donation basis. - photo by Jeff Benziger

“If I don’t stay here then they want to come here and vandalize and do all kinds of crazy stuff,” said Winchester, a native of Turlock who moved to southwest Modesto as a young girl.

She’s not employed and spends her time decorating the cemetery which is booby-trapped with bizarre and eclectic creations fashioned from materials scavenged. A discarded lawnmower is parked beneath a wooden cross. One of the graves is decorated with a repurposed faucet turned flower holder, another doing of Winchester. Last week Halloween decorations were up, a theme that she said will soon give way to Christmas decorations. At night, some of the graves are lit by solar-powered lights which Winchester has purchased.

Winchester claims to own the cemetery parcel she’s camping on but absent the deed could be considered a squatter. The legal owner of record is Jose Antonio Ureno Jr., according to Stanislaus County records.

“A man, Tony, he had owned it and then he sold it to me for $55,000,” said Winchester, as one playful kitten followed her traipsing between the dusty markers and stopping to play with a decoration. “I had $5,000 left to pay of the money and he passed away so I don’t know what’s gonna go on now. I know they’re not going to take this property from me. I love this place with all my heart.”

Pet grave marker
Just one of the many markers for animals buried at Pet Rest Cemetery. This one is for Falene who died in 1974. - photo by Jeff Benziger

It’s hard to explain the attraction she has with the cemetery but it goes back many years. She remembers visiting the site with friends as a scared seven-year-old, watching Mr. Peele at work digging holes and burying pets. The kids didn’t want to venture past the oleanders bordering the road but finally did so when Peele told them there was nothing to be frightened of. Over the years she observed how Peele dug the holes and buried the animals in redwood coffins – a weekend endeavor for the accountant that never yielded financial rewards. It seemed that folks routinely buried their dead pets on their own property rather than shell out $50 for a pet funeral – the equivalent of $180 today.

Peele had big plans for the facility. He told the Bee in 1981 that the parcel was large enough to accommodate 4,000 dog-sized plots – right where Winchester, her boyfriend and a friend are, well, squatting. At the time he estimated that the cemetery contained about 120 dogs, 40 cats, five monkeys and one fish.

After Peele moved from Modesto to Sunnyvale he commuted on weekends to care for the cemetery. But gradually he relinquished care of his cemetery and when he passed away, the neglect increased with the second and third owners.

Since then countless additional graves, like the one for “Peaches – The Loveable Love Bird” who died in 1992, have been added. Winchester has buried four of her own dogs in the cemetery, one killed by a car in 2018.

With most – if not all – the pets forgotten with the passing of their owners, Winchester takes care to set silk flowers on the graves. Purple silk flowers were atop the grave of “Puppy Honey” who lived from 1971 to 1985. Blue and yellow flowers decorate the grave of “Darling Dinky” (1985-1988) and “Wise and Wonderful Garfield” (1983-88). The owner engraved “two loved cats” on the marble marker.

Inscriptions on some of the markers bear witness that these pets once meant more than anything to some of the folks who buried them here. “Skippy Carroll,” no doubt a dog, was with its owner from 1970 to 1988 and was “My Kid.” “We love you” is engraved on the marker for “Kitty Mahoney” who was a faithful feline companion from 1966 to 1981. God only knows now who the person was who fed and cared for her.

While some people feel that pet cemeteries are silly expressions, psychologists say the grief that often accompanies the death of a pet can be just as painful as losing a human member of the family. Just ask those who brought “Girl Dog Mahoney” to this site in 1992 to bury a pet who was the “Best Family Member” since her 1979 birth. 

Most people don’t opt to bury their pets in a pet cemetery – if one can be found. Often a pet is buried outside the home where the dog or cat roamed. Others turn to cremation services offered at places like Family Pet Mortuary in Turlock.

Despite not the legal owner of record, Winchester acts as though it’s hers and oversees the burial of pets on a donation basis. She even expanded the graveyard to a nearby section of softer ground in the shade of an oak.

“If they have nothing to donate I’ll still bury their animal for them.”

It irked her that recently someone dropped off four dead dogs with so much of a note. She buried them anyway, unable to shake the inconsiderate action.

It’s hard to say what will become of the pet cemetery given enough time and development pressures that are sure to come in the future. Relocation of cemeteries is not uncommon. According to Angela Freitas of the Stanislaus County Planning Department, the property was annexed to the city of Modesto on May 4.  Prior to annexation, the pet cemetery was zoned A-2 (General Agriculture) and considered a legal nonconforming use in that it was established long before the current zoning restrictions.

Winchester said that a gentleman offered to buy the land for a half a million dollars, something she said she’d turn down as the owner.

Winchester bemoans how the county paved over the southern portion of the cemetery when it made improvements to the intersection of Hatch and Carpenter years ago.

“They took the property they had no right to do and the animals are still buried underneath the road,” she said.

Cat grave markers
Grave markers for two cats named Dinky (1985-1988) and Garfield (1983-1988). - photo by Jeff Benziger