Doyle Drive rebuild won't displace quirky Presidio pet cemetery

With any major construction project, there's always a legion of folks out there fighting to protect the habitat of an endangered flower or critter. With the county and state's joint $1 billion project to replace seismically unsafe Doyle Drive scheduled to break ground in October, it's the grave of a toothless hamster that's getting the royal treatment.

Project planners say they are taking special care to preserve the final resting sites of the animals in the Presidio Pet Cemetery, which is located directly below the elevated access road to the Golden Gate Bridge. In fact, construction workers will take extra precautions when removing some trees around the roughly 100 graves.

They will use "special techniques" to pull the trees so as to not disturb the cemetery, says Molly Graham, a consultant hired by the San Francisco Transportation Authority as a spokeswoman for the Doyle Drive project. "It's not a historic facility, but it's much loved," she says.

The cemetery was the lone spot for military families once stationed on the post to bury their pets — dogs, lizards, rats, fish, pigeons, and parakeets — when they passed away. There is something bewitching about the cemetery's nebulous origin and handmade, quirky epitaphs such as: "Louise — Beloved Rat and Friend" or "Charlie was my favorite pet I every (sic) had. He was my bird."

Historians don't know exactly when the cemetery was built, but some headstones date to the early 1900s. "It's an emotionally sensitive habitat ... a San Francisco anomaly," Graham says, adding that that is why a few passionate residents urged that the cemetery be left intact.

But why has it taken so long for this adored burial ground to get a little TLC? Boy Scouts maintained the graves until the 1990s, when the Presidio was converted into a park. Since then, it has fallen into disrepair, with only "passing interest" from visitors along the scenic route on McDowell Avenue, says Amanda Williford, who works at the park's archive and record center.

But park officials are trying to build community interest in caring for the cemetery again. After all, Williford pointed out, pet owners still try to stealthily "bury Fluffy" inside the cemetery even though the rules prohibit them from doing so.

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