A BLACK CAT weaves his way through the headstones, his white paws stepping lightly on the graves of Trini, Ziggy and others among the thousands who've ended up in Pet Lawn Memorial Park over five decades.
The only visitors on this recent morning are the cat and a sweaty guy knee-deep in the earth with a shovel. He's not burying a pet - he's exhuming it. Fewer folks can afford the maintenance fees these days, and now the Berlin, N.J., cemetery is for sale and on the eighth of its nine lives.
"I just get so emotional," said owner Jill Weilenbeck, 50, her mouth quivering. "I can't get through a conversation about this place without breaking down."
Weilenbeck's love for animals outweighs her business savvy, she admits, but because millions of Americans are also crazy over pets even after they die, the cemetery on Route 73 in Camden County always did business.
More than 15,000 pets, including horses, birds and a raccoon, have been buried there since it opened in 1951. One woman has buried dozens of cats, each with its own plaque.
The cemetery is also the final resting place for about a dozen cremated humans, who wanted to spend eternity with their beloved pets. One is surrounded by a half-dozen pets, including bull terriers Skipper and Monk and an iguana named Iggy.
These days, Weilenbeck said, she's lucky if she gets one or two pet burials a month, which means less money is available to fight the constant battle against weeds and bushes that crowd the graves.
Some people stopped paying maintenance fees, and Weilenbeck can't bring herself to take them to court. Fees are $50 a year, or a one-time fee of $1,000 for perpetual care.
Others are asking for their pets to be exhumed, for cremation elsewhere by another company at a cost of up to $225, depending on the size of the animal.
Because Weilenbeck no longer has a crematory, she's left with empty graves and dwindling funds.
"People just can't afford it anymore. We used to do so many burials . . . ," said Weilenbeck, her voice trailing off.
Unlike a cemetery for humans, pet cemeteries are not tax-exempt. Weilenbeck said that she hasn't figured out how to become a nonprofit. That's left her with a whopping $25,000 annual property-tax bill and forced her to put the cemetery up for sale.
"I can't pay the taxes and the support isn't here," she said. "I don't know what else to do. I never wanted to give up."
At the Hartsdale, N.Y., Pet Cemetery & Crematory, which describes itself as "America's first and most prestigious pet burial grounds," owner Ed Martin Jr. sympathizes with Weilenbeck's struggles.
"There's been pet cemeteries that have gone under," Martin said. "It's a very messy situation."
Most of Weilenbeck's 6.13-acre property is cemetery, but an unused acre or two can be seen along bustling Route 73. The entire property is selling for $599,000.
Real estate agent Sid Benstead said that it's been a hard sell. "It's a complicated property," he said.
Weilenbeck said that the property has restrictions on what can be built, although Berlin Township officials say it doesn't. Either way, Benstead said, no developer would want to buy it and start removing pets or paving them over.
"It wouldn't be worth the encounters that would come with it," he said. "I think it should be sold as a pet cemetery."
Weilenbeck said that she'd consider subdividing the property, so that someone could build on the front lot and still allow access to the cemetery. She'd still like to make it work, because her life dedicated to animals hasn't been easy and often has been misintepreted, she said.
When Weilenbeck owned the West Jersey Animal Shelter, she was charged with animal cruelty after the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals found unsanitary, crowded conditions at the "limited-kill" shelter.
Her husband, Walter, founded the animal shelter and died in a car crash on his way there in 2002, before the charges were filed. The ordeal still riles Weilenbeck, and talking about her husband just brings more tears.
"I just always wanted to help animals," she said, standing near the entrance. "I want to do this, but I just can't do it by myself."