After months of dutifully visiting the twin plots covered with pinwheels and fresh flowers, Iris Williams made her last trek Friday to the Oakcrest Pet Cemetery.
She tearfully decided to dig up Geoffrey and Lil' Guy so she could bring her dogs home.
Williams didn't have to: The county has promised to preserve and maintain the 33-year-old pet cemetery, even as the property gets folded into the 40 acres being added to the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex. Parks employees will tend to the landscaping, and the county will add a 6-foot fence around the pet cemetery to discourage vandals, Assistant County Administrator Dan Johnson told a group of concerned pet owners Friday.
But Williams had her doubts.
"It's not that I don't trust the county, although I don't," said Williams, a Tampa retiree who wants the county's assurances in writing. "It's just there's too many things up in the air."
Pasco County bought the 40-acre patchwork of properties, including the 2-acre cemetery, last October to double the size of the Land O'Lakes park. Parents say the park desperately needs more ball fields and parking.
The county has no plans to allow future pet burials at the Oakcrest Pet Cemetery, Johnson said, but the existing graves will remain intact.
"We have no other plans for the land. It is going to remain a pet cemetery," Johnson told a dozen pet owners gathered at the cemetery Friday. "I don't know how much stronger I can say that."
The meticulously landscaped cemetery is the final resting place for about 6,000 pets, including a butterfly, a chimpanzee, snakes, iguanas, opossums, horses, and lots of cats and dogs. The cremains of about 20 pet-loving humans are also buried in containers.
The soon-to-be gated cemetery will remain open to visitors during daylight hours, except for holidays such as Christmas and Thanksgiving, when county parks are closed, Johnson said.
As they learned more Friday of the county's plans to protect and maintain the grounds, some pet owners became cautiously relieved.
"I think the county assured us as much as possible that it will be maintained as a pet cemetery," said Land O'Lakes resident Leslie Hardy, who buried her German shepherd, Marigot, in 2000. "We've got to put our trust in government at this point."
"I think the county government will do okay," added Tampa resident Peter Volkman, whose dogs Brandy and Skippy are buried there. "I will say I will watch them at the beginning."
James and Dorothy Hodgson created the cemetery in 1971, and their daughter, Carolyn Shea, has run it for years. She said she reluctantly sold the cemetery because she sensed a buyout by the county was inevitable.
As news of the cemetery sale spread, Shea has seen the range of reactions from pet owners: sorrow, acceptance, anger.
"It is hard for me when somebody like Iris (Williams, the woman who removed her two dogs Friday) is upset," Shea said. "I try to comfort her and show her this isn't as bad as she thinks."
So far at least one irate pet owner has sued Shea. Lillian Vollo buried her Shih Tzu, P.J., at the cemetery Nov. 25 _ a month after the county completed the sale of the property, but two months before possession of the property transferred to the county.
"She (Shea) led us to believe it was an active cemetery, (that) she wasn't going anywhere," said Vollo, a New Port Richey retiree.
Vollo said her religious beliefs prevent her from exhuming P.J., but she believes she should get her $856 back.
Shea is saddened by such cases, but hopes pet owners will find comfort in the county's assurances to protect the cemetery.
"I still stand by the county," Shea said. "They're going to do the right thing."
_ Bridget Hall Grumet covers Pasco County government. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6244 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6244. Her e-mail address is bhallsptimes.com.
How to help
County officials are organizing a group of volunteers, called Friends of the Oakcrest Pet Cemetery, to help maintain the grounds. Anyone interested may call Pasco County toll-free at 1-800-368-2411 and ask for the Parks and Recreation Department.