Surrounded by a white picket fence and shaded by a dozen Monterey pines, the pet cemetery contains a variety of grave markers, most of which mimic those found in official military cemeteries. Most markers are wooden, painted white with large black stenciled lettering. Some headstones provide evidence of the pets' military lifestyle, listing birthplaces like China, England, Australia, and Germany. Many markers include family names and owners' ranks, which include majors, colonels and generals. Some contain only a simple epitaph, such as "A GI pet. He did his time." Like many military cemeteries, there are markers and tributes to several "unknowns"
Although many visitors are surprised to find a pet cemetery located here in the Presidio, perhaps it is not all that remarkable. Most of us have had a beloved pet that has died, and we then find a special place to bury it. For many military pet owners stationed here through the years, the Presidio and its pet cemetery is that special place. However, the small cemetery plot not only symbolizes this poignant aspect of Presidio military family life, but also represents the cemetery's shadowy origins and controversies regarding the Presidio's status as a national park. Located under the Golden Gate Bridge approach (see map on back), the half-acre plot is the final resting place for hundreds of military pets. The majority of animals buried at the Presidio pet cemetery are dogs and cats, but there are also parakeets, canaries, pigeons, macaws, rabbits, hamsters, rats, lizards, goldfish, and mice.
While the Presidio's pet cemetery is clear evidence of the love that exists between families and their pets, the origins of the cemetery itself remains mysterious. A pet cemetery is not unknown on an Army base, but there are no existing records for the Presidio's pet cemetery. Consequently legends have developed alluding to burial grounds for 19th century cavalry horses or World War II guard dogs. The oldest markers date only to the early 1950s, when the Presidio was under command of Lt. General Joseph M. Swing, and some give him credit for the authorization of the pet cemetery. Most pet owners don't recall any particular Army regulations for pet burial; they simply found a suitable spot for their pet's final resting place.
In the 1970s the cemetery fell into disrepair. Legend tells of an anonymous retired Navy man who became its guardian. He tended to the deteriorating headstones and repainted the fence. It is believed that he placed the military-style cautionary sign seen at the cemetery entrance today.
The Presidio pet cemetery itself became a notable and controversial symbol during the 1994 Congressional budgetary sessions. Representative John J. Duncan Jr., (R) of Tennessee used the conversion of the Presidio to a national park to draw attention to the federal deficit and referred to the Presidio as the country's "smallest and most expensive national park." Duncan sent letters to his supporters with a photo of the Presidio pet cemetery and the headline asking "Is This Your Vision of a National Park?"
Although the Presidio became part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area later that year, the pet cemetery argument may have helped influence Congress to establish the Presidio Trust, a public-private government agency which is charged with making the park financially self-sufficient by 2013. This joint venture between the National Park Service and the Presidio Trust, is unique among our national parks.
Today the tiny cemetery is officially closed. In 2001, the Presidio Trust appointed the nonprofit organization Swords to Plowshares as the official caretaker of the cemetery and its Presidio affiliate now maintains the site. However, the cemetery's fate during the planned construction of a new bridge approach is uncertain.
The Presidio pet cemetery has enchanted and intrigued Presidio visitors and residents for fifty years. The cemetery provides insight into the loving personal relationships between military personnel and their pets. Its mysterious origins and continued maintenance contribute to its fascination. Finally, the role it played in the establishment of a new form of park management in the national park system adds to its significance and notoriety.
Last updated: March 31, 2012