LaReeca Rucker has been a journalist for more than 20 years, and her work has appeared in newspapers across the nation. She spent a decade as a features writer and multimedia journalist with The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi, where she was also a USA TODAY contributor. She is a freelance journalist and support journalism instructor in the University of Mississippi's Meek School of Journalism and New Media in Oxford, Mississippi.

Pet Paradise: Volunteers creating a fetching pet cemetery

LaReeca Rucker
The Clarion-Ledger

Raymond resident Gary Wagley has never had to look for a new pet; they always find him, perhaps sensing that he will keep them safe.

Gypsy Doll discovered him in the garage. She was playing with a shoe beside his Corvette. Wagley rescued Lucky from the parking lot of a hardware store, and Taylor, a yellow lab, decided to live with him instead of the neighbor to whom he originally belonged. Wagley bought Taylor for $1,000, and the pup became his companion for the next five years before dying in 2006 at age 11.

All seven of his dogs are buried in Pet Paradise Cemetery, a place where Wagley, 76, is known as the modest and faithful groundskeeper of the property that was severely neglected until he and others volunteered their time and money to restore it.

Sunday afternoon, he walked the cemetery grounds toward the grave of Gypsy Doll, and spoke about the site's importance.

"There are more than 600 pets buried here," he said. "There's a story behind every one of these little dogs."

Katrina Jameson can share two. Her brother's beagle, Peppie, is buried here along with her 25-pound Maine coon cat, Blanche.

Pet Paradise is the only pet cemetery within a 150-mile radius of Jackson, Jameson said. It's been here since the 1970s, but was neglected many years after the original owner died.

Now Jameson and friends are working to maintain the newly revitalized cemetery that is now owned by a board of directors. Sunday, an observance was held to recognize improvements made since March 2007. The public was invited. Some came to remember their late pets, while others brought live pets to participate in a traditional St. Francis of Assisi Blessing of the Animals.

"At some time in your life, someone is going to ask you if pets go to heaven, or if we'll ever see them again," said Jameson, who led the ceremony. "It poses a question about whether or not God's love extends to all creatures, and I believe it does. The story of Noah's Ark leaves no doubt that God cares about all his creatures. We're all in the same boat, so to speak ... How many of us would be totally satisfied with a vision of heaven that does not include his creatures?"

Vincent's owner wouldn't be. The cat's tombstone is inscribed, "Heaven shall not heaven be unless my cat is there to greet me."

A statue of Jesus watches over the pet graves, including the fenced gravesite of Jean Paul, a poodle who belonged to Julius Cruse, a Jackson doctor and Pet Paradise board member. You'll find graves of cats, dogs, rabbits, a turtle named Speedy, and "The Pooch" of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley. Her stepfather Gene Caldwell created the cemetery.

While Pet Paradise is now in better shape, more improvements are needed. Some graves have large markers that have sunken into the ground. Others had temporary metal markers that were knocked over or blown to the other side of the property during Hurricane Katrina.

After Caldwell's death in 2002, the cemetery remained unattended until Shari Schneider stopped by to visit the graves of her two dogs. When she couldn't find their headstones, she decided to get the community involved in the cemetery's revitalization, but it wasn't easy.

Wagley has been the most active volunteer. When Schneider asked for help, he began mowing the grass and landscaping the grounds. Jameson and Schneider held two fundraisers in the last 18 months, but neither were successful. Some even mocked them for trying.

"I've had people slam doors in my face and hang up the phone on me," Schneider said. "They think it's just a pet cemetery, and that you should care for poor people, not poodles. And while I don't think you should ever, under any circumstances, neglect another human, I have never had a pet that didn't live at least 13 years, and they were members of my family. I think it's disgraceful to let any kind of cemetery go like that. You shouldn't let any place where something or somebody is laid to rest become neglected."

The cemetery is important to Schneider because Valentina, a half-schnauzer/half-poodle born on Valentine's Day in 1971, is buried there. She had the Benji look-alike 11 years before she died of pancreatitis in 1982. Her Australian shepherd, Mikhail, is also in Pet Paradise.

"He died in my arms of old age," she said. "I put him on a sheet, kissed his ears and said good-bye." Schneider works to keep the cemetery beautiful to honor her pets, but some people make it difficult.

"We've had four dead animals dumped on our front lawn this summer," she said. "We're not burying them. We call animal services, and if (the owners) can't dig a hole in their yard, I suggest that they do that, too."


Schneider is proud of the accomplishments that have been made at Pet Paradise. "The cemetery was in shambles," she said. "There was pine straw several inches thick, and when you got under it, it was moldy white. The fence was entirely covered with honeysuckle. It was scary to even be out there. It's hard work doing it with just two people."

It costs $300 to bury your pet in Paradise, and part of that fee is used for the cemetery's perpetual upkeep. The cemetery has been closed during the renovation, and no pets have been buried here in the past year, but Schneider hopes it will reopen in a few months.

Jackson resident Diane Jackson knelt and affixed orange silk flowers to the headstone of her mixed breed, Max, Sunday. He died in 1993, but she still visits him at Easter, Valentine's Day and Christmas.

"I had him for 17 years, and I had to have him put down after two cancer operations," she said. "I was thinking of selling my place at the time, so I brought him out here. At Christmas, we still put his picture up by Santa Claus. He was as sweet as he could be, and he never met a stranger, but he didn't care too much for cats."

Brandon resident Ruth Vickery's dog Mickey died 20 years ago, and she still visits his grave. "He was just a beagle, but he was very special," she said. "He was like a third child, and there's not a day that goes by that we don't talk about him."

A happy ending

There's a yelp in the distance. As the crowd begins to disperse after the ceremony, the cries become louder, and Jameson realizes it's a puppy in the woods on the other side of the metal fence.

"It sounds like someone is torturing it," she said, walking toward the scraggly little schnauzer.

Jackson resident Mary Johnson retrieved the puppy while Schneider, Wagley and others gathered around to take a look.

"Who would have thought the day would end so sweetly," said Schneider. "Who turned you out," asked Johnson, stroking the bony puppy. "They don't deserve you," Schneider added.

Johnson pondered how she could afford to take care of the puppy, since she had other dogs to feed, and without hesitation, Wagley pulled out his wallet, retrieved a crisp $100 bill and handed it to Johnson.

Both began to cry. "I can't refuse anything that needs help," she said. "Take her to the vet," Wagley said. "Give her a good bath, something to eat and love. That's all she needs."


The Journalism Portfolio of LaReeca Rucker