There’s been talk of protesters chaining themselves to the front gates, but it appears that might not be necessary.
In the weeks since community members got word that the Lewis and Clark Humane Society has considered exhuming and cremating the bodies of the animals laid to rest decades ago in the Arley Burt Pet Cemetery adjacent to its shelter, a small, passionate, group has banded together to protest the idea. A banner has appeared on the cemetery fence; letters, e-mails and phone calls have come in to the Humane Society, the city offices and various news outlets.
Gretchen Grayum, the informal leader of the movement, anticipates that the group’s membership will only continue to grow.
“There will be more,” she said. “I’m not worried about that.”
Grayum’s German shepherd-collie cross and “post-divorce dog,” Nikki, is among the 1,200 animals resting somewhere in the 1.3-acre patch of land. She, like all the other pet owners who utilized the cemetery between 1972 and 1993, paid to have her dog buried in the cemetery with the notion that she would be there forever, Grayum said. What she wants is assurance that the Humane Society will abandon any ideas that would change that.
“I want someone to tell me this isn’t going to happen,” she said.
It seems there’s hope for her cause. The Humane Society’s initial consideration had come from some comments the organization received from contractors during construction of the nearby Residence Inn by Marriott, said Gina Wiest, the shelter’s executive director. But Jena Sabatini, who owns the hotel with her husband, said they knew the cemetery was there when they picked the location. She admitted that it would be ideal if the land were maintained regularly, but didn’t have any particular qualms about its current use.
Wiest hasn’t yet discussed the issue with the Sabatinis, though she’s hoping to organize a meeting sometime in the near future to find a solution that would be in everybody’s best interest.
However, City Attorney David Nielsen points out that the land doesn’t actually belong to the Humane Society. It’s owned by the city, he said, and the city has no plans for disturbing the grounds. The organization first leased land along Custer Avenue from the city in 1993 to operate its shelter, then added more in 1999. The parcel of land on which the pet cemetery sits wasn’t added to the Humane Society’s lease agreement until 2002.
The organization hasn’t had the resources or the volunteers for consistent maintenance of the land, Wiest said. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when a group of high school students from the college preparation program Montana Tech Upward Bound spent a Saturday afternoon trimming and raking, that the cemetery received some attention.
Though some of the pet cemetery advocates have volunteered to help with the cemetery’s upkeep through manpower and funding, Wiest wonders why nobody offered their assistance at any point in the past decade. It was only after they heard that the animals might be removed that they rallied to fix up the area, she said.
“I’m not quite understanding the whole thought process,” she said.
Regardless, individuals have come forth with proposals. Charleen Spalding, a local historian and author, has offered to match up to $500 in donations to replace a fence around the land. She’d prefer something white and vinyl that wouldn’t require much upkeep.
Nielsen said he’s watched volunteer efforts save burial sites in the past, noting a movement in the late 1990s to spruce up the Benton Avenue cemetery. Some of the people who’d been buried there have since been exhumed and cremated, he said.
Well-known Helena historian Ellen Baumler said the preservation of all cemeteries, human or otherwise, is valuable and has thrown her support behind the Arley Burt restoration movement.
“I think it could be a nice, restful place, kind of in the middle of nowhere,” she said.
Baumler, well-versed in supernatural happenings around town, also said she doesn’t think the cemetery is haunted, though she has an explanation for rumors that it might be.
“Kids think every cemetery is haunted,” she said.
Though a resolution has yet to be made, each group is moving forward.
Grayum encourages anyone who wishes to help out with the pet cemetery to contact her at woodsongdesigns@
The Residence Inn is now open for business. Guests are allowed to bring pets.
Reporter Allison Maier:
447-4075 or email@example.com