A pet cemetery that contain the remains of more than 500 animals is being excavated in Oakville as a local humane society that maintains the graves prepares to move to a new location.
The Oakville & Milton Humane Society, a non-profit charitable organization, has arranged for University of Toronto forensic science students to excavate burial plots at the cemetery. Work on the excavation began on Friday. The cemetery opened in 1953 and the last plot was assigned in 1991.
Jeff Vallentin, executive director of the Oakville & Milton Humane Society, said the organization wants to ensure the remains are properly excavated and documented. The remains will be stored in a separate room at the humane society until the move takes place.
“Today is a big day. It’s really the official start of an excavation that is a long time coming, but also really special. It deserves great care,” Valletin said.
“We have a pet cemetery here that has been in place for many, many years and it needs to be excavated so that we can care for the remains and bring them with us to a new location for our shelter.”
Valletin said the humane society doesn’t have a new location yet but it needs more space. He said it is working with the town to find a new location with the next two years.
The excavation is expected to take about 18 months. There will be a new memorial site at the new location, he added.
Humane society contacting pet owners
The humane society has begun to contact pet owners, or their descendants, to let them know that it will bring the remains of their pets to the new location. All families are being given the option to reclaim their pet’s remains and gravestones.
Vallentin said staff at the humane society have been able to reach about a quarter of the families whose pets are buried in the cemetery.
Heather White, who has worked at the Oakville and Milton Humane Society for 40 years, said it is dedicated to providing the remains with honour and dignity.
“This cemetery has existed for a very long time and I think it’s really important that we’re taking the time to respect their remains and make sure that no animal is left behind,” White said.
At the cemetery on Friday, students with shovels and trowels carefully removed topsoil from the graves.
Grace Gregory-Alcock, a first-year PhD student in the forensic science program at University of Toronto’s anthropology department, said the remains will be treated with respect.
She said she expects the students will find some of the remains enclosed in coffins, while others may be in shoe boxes. There may also be a number of animals in one coffin, she said.
Gregory-Alcock said she will supervise the students as they excavate the remains and remove the plaques and will make sure everything is catalogued.
“This is an incredible and unique opportunity for our students. I actually haven’t had the opportunity to excavate in a cemetery before. This is a first for me as well,” she said.
Dr. Tracy Rogers, associate professor in anthropology and director of the forensic science program at the University of Toronto, said in a news release: “Our priority is to ensure the proper documentation and excavation of the graves, in order to recover the pets as carefully and respectfully as possible.
“This important community project will provide students with a unique opportunity to develop practical skills, while helping them understand why care and consideration of those we recover from any context (historic, modern, or forensic) is so important to the families who love them.”
Vallentin, for his part, said the humane society is responsible for the remains and has chosen to excavate the cemetery as part of its impending move. Leaving the animals behind would be the wrong choice, he said.
“We really take it seriously the responsibility of ensuring that these remains are properly cared for, not just today, but for the long term,” he said.
The humane society says on its website that it has space for about 300 animals in its shelter at its current location.
“We are dedicated to protecting and making life better for animals and connecting the communities that care about them in Oakville and Milton,” the humane society says.