Dedicated Neighbors Keep a Pet Cemetery, and Presidio History, Alive

For neighbors in the Presidio, the pet cemetery represents a piece of the neighborhood's history.  (Jasmine Garnett)

Rest in peace, Schmelly. Knuckle-head, you’re in parakeet paradise. And aloha, Woody—you were one great weiner dog.

A detour under a highway might not sound like an appealing destination. But next time you take a walk along San Francisco's Presidio Promenade, consider making a stop at the pet cemetery, reopened in the last year after temporarily shuttering for the reconstruction of Doyle Drive.

The cemetery dates back to 1952, when it served as a final resting place for pets of the military families that lived in the Presidio. It was originally cared for by local Boy Scouts, who would bury pets and make grave markers for a small fee. The cemetery was almost full in 1963, and by the mid ’70s, it closed to new burials and began to fall into decline.

In 1978, an article in the Star Presidian newsletter revealed that a retired member of the Navy named Ken had taken up caring for the pet cemetery. While requesting to remain anonymous, the mysterious good Samaritan described using his retirement pay to buy new paint and lumber to replace rotting markers. Michael Lamb, historic landscape architect at the Presidio Trust, has a hunch as to how to identify signs refurbished by Ken. One that reads “The Love These Animals Gave Will Never Be Forgotten” is in suspiciously good condition considering its age.

Knuckle Head the parakeet's gravestone in the Presidio pet cemetary.
Knuckle Head the parakeet's gravestone in the Presidio pet cemetary. (Jasmine Garnett)

The cemetery has been under stewardship of the Presidio Trust since 1998. Over the last 20 years, it’s relied on volunteers and veterans for minor maintenance and upkeep. They reinforced the old, failing fence a couple of times and cut back an invading ice plant, and there were one or two community work days to clean up the site. Other than that, not much else has been done. But as Lamb explains, “With the established trees and the seasonal grasses from the winter rains, the site took on a rough appearance that actually contributed to its charm.”

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Recently, the Presidio Trust and a private donor funded even more improvements—among them, a new picket fence, trees, signs and ornamental plants. For two Saturdays in October, volunteers painted the fence white.

Two of the volunteers were veteran Phil Gioia and his daughter—who, fittingly, is a Girl Scout. He remembers the pet cemetery as “one of the most unique things about the Presidio” from when he was stationed there in 1975. Back when it was an active military post, he says, the cemetery was right across the street from the veterinarian, who took care of working animals and pets alike. (Many military families had exotic pets, which is how the cemetery ended up with pigeons and bats next to cats and dogs.)

As Gioia remembers, the generals commanding the Presidio were aware of the cemetery and its significance to the people who lived there. “One of them, back in the 1950s, was really emphatic that this place be taken care of and families have the opportunity to bury their pets there,” Gioia says.“We buried a cat there years ago, and he’s in there with all the other little critters, among all his buddies, I’m sure, playing a harp in the little critter orchestra there.”

Woody the wiener dog's grave site in the Presidio pet cemetery.
Woody the wiener dog's grave site in the Presidio pet cemetery. (Jasmine Garnett)

Sam Bibbens lives at the Veterans Academy, a supportive housing site for veterans less than two miles away from the pet cemetery in the Presidio. He’s also volunteered at the cemetery several times, digging and cleaning to make the space beautiful. Explaining what drew him to the project, he says, “As a veteran, I’m just a concerned citizen who saw something that may have been a valuable historical resource at the time and wanted to stop it from disappearing.”

Bibbens knows that most people probably find the whole thing a bit unusual. Not all of them, though. “Some of them love animals more than they love people,” he says.

A banner at the entrance of the reopened cemetery reads, “While not considered historic, the Presidio Trust recognizes that the Pet Cemetery is a unique and treasured spot in San Francisco and is working on its rehabilitation.” The only scheduled closure will take place in the summer for some soil grading; periodic volunteer events promise to keep the cemetery in tip-top shape.

Throughout its nearly 70-year history, whenever the cemetery starts getting a little run down, someone steps up to fix it. Maybe it’s a connection to the past, or the bond between people and their pets, but the Presidio Pet Cemetery shows that sometimes love is a painstakingly repainted grave marker that says “Cindy Pooper.”