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Garden of Love: A final home for cherished pets

Tombstone of Snickers, with a bouquet of flowers next to it. (Rory McDermott/WUFT News)
Tombstone of Snickers, with a bouquet of flowers next to it. (Rory McDermott/WUFT News)

Vixen was Lori Landry’s first pet, a Pomeranian her parents gave her as a Christmas present when she was 10 in remembrance of her brother who had recently passed away.

“She was a Christmas gift, so it was only right to name her after one of Santa's reindeer,” Landry said.

Today, Vixen rests in the Garden of Love, a pet cemetery in Micanopy.

The Garden is a special place for Landry, who works alongside the cemetery’s owner and doctor of veterinary medicine Linda McCollough at Haile Plantation Animal Clinic.

The Garden was founded and developed by Frank and Dorothy “Dot” Stout in 1980. It provides Alachua County residents a place to lay to rest their beloved animals once they pass — a service that is priceless to Landry, although many others are unaware of it.

By 2002, the operation had become too much for the Stouts to handle, so they asked their veterinarian, McCollough, to purchase the Garden and take over its operation.

McCollough recalled the moment that Dorothy Stout offered her the Garden. “It was completely unexpected, yet I accepted it, and here we are 20 years later,” she said.

McCollough is a Gainesville native and has worked at Haile Plantation Animal Clinic in Gainesville since 1996. She said she never could have imagined how interesting of a business she was getting into when she accepted the Stouts’ offer.

One adaptation that McCollough was forced to make along the way was switching from wooden to plastic caskets. She said because of the Florida weather, the wooden caskets often deteriorated over the years, leading her to switch to plastic ones instead.

She estimates that there are more than 1,500 pets buried in the Garden. Roughly 90% of the cemetery's residents are dogs and cats, with birds and pocket pets, such as hamsters and gerbils, representing the remaining 10%.

There are some pets buried there that do not fit the traditional mold, including a horse named Kuba La Kahn. McCollough said that a backhoe was brought in to dig its grave.

Amid all the animals, lies one man: Dave Benton. McCollough said that Benton was cremated and had his ashes buried next to his pets. If someone wishes to be buried in the Garden, they must be cremated.

Located off U.S. 441, the Garden of Love is not readily visible from the road and the entrance is marked by one small sign that reads “Pet Cemetery.” In the cemetery, people will find countless tombstones honoring deceased pets.

The tombstones vary in size and include messages from pet owners. One has a picture of the departed dog and reads: “Gretchen Kilfeather, the greatest dog that ever lived, Feb. 10, 1994 - Nov. 2, 2004.” Another: “Yogee Bear Ritcher, Jan. 1, 2002 - April 20, 2009, a cuckoo who will live in our hearts forever.”

McCollough said fewer people choose to bury their pets nowadays, with the option of cremation becoming more popular. Landry thinks that the decline in pet burials at the Garden is partly due to people in the area moving away frequently and “becoming more mobile,” causing them to favor cremation.

Some pet owners are not aware of the service that the Garden provides. Deven Rabeiro, a dog owner, lives just 15 minutes north of the Garden and had never heard of it.

“You never want to think about that day coming for your pet, and I have not decided what route I will go, but it is nice to know that is an option so close to me,” he said.

Landry said the Garden of Love is important because “cremation is not an option for some people.” Whether it be for religious reasons or personal preference, the Garden provides an alternative for those pet owners.

Just as the Stouts intended, the Garden of Love continues to serve the pet owners of Alachua County 43 years after its conception. A heart-shaped sculpture engraved with the Stouts' names sits in the middle of the cemetery and reads: “May this beautiful park and its purpose continue to bring healing, peace and love to you for many years to come.”

Landry finds peace in knowing her pets share the same resting place. “It is great to have a special place to go visit all of them together,” she said.

Landry is also fond of the atmosphere of the Garden. “I love the old Florida vibe it has, with all the tall clumps of trees, it is beautiful,” she said.

After burying her dog Vixen in 2006, Landry has laid 17 more pets to rest in the cemetery including a bird and a sugar glider.

“I chose to bury Vixen in the Garden of Love because I wanted a place that would always be there, a place close to me that I can bring my family to go visit,” Landry said.

Rory is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.