Oak Hill Cemetery is the temporary resting place for a group of stray dogs.
Stray and abandoned dogs wander among the tombstones at Oak Hill Cemetery near the BJCC in north Birmingham, and several call the city’s 140-year-old graveyard home. Some keep to themselves, and others travel in packs. Oak Hill’s executive director Stuart Oates, who has worked at the cemetery for a decade and has been an animal lover all his life, frequently spies the animals roaming the grounds and is sometimes forced to call animal control when encountering aggressive dogs. Most, however, seem afraid of people and are unapproachable. They are difficult to catch—savvy creatures seemingly expert at self-survival.
A few dogs have been friendly, however, and Oates and his family have adopted two of them. The first was a Siberian Husky puppy named Lubka, who he discovered lying near a gravestone, one of her legs completely shattered. He speculates that the dog’s owner abandoned her, since it’s unusual to see a purebred dog wandering as a stray. The second animal the family took in was a shaggy black dog that his eight-year-old daughter Mina named Lucky.
“We were digging a grave, getting ready for a funeral, and all of a sudden this sweet looking, little black half–Cocker Spaniel, half-Dachshund came wandering up near us,” he says. “He just kind of sat there staring off in the distance like he didn’t have a friend in the world. He came over, and at the time I just didn’t think that we could keep another dog. But he was a perfectly fine, house-trained dog.” The Oates family—Stuart, his wife Gabriela, who works at UAB, Mina, and her brother Teddy, age five—adopted Lucky in 2008.
On a recent Sunday morning at the cemetery, father and daughter share anecdotes as a homeless Shar Pei that Mina named Baby Doll lounges on a nearby tombstone slab. After correcting my mispronunciation of her dog Lubka’s name (Lubka is Russian for “little love,”), Mina told the animal’s story: “Lubka was running around somewhere in the cemetery and her leg was broken or something. And then my Dad took her in. She wouldn’t drink water, so he, like, got a wet rag and put it over her, so then she drank a little bit and he took her to the vet.
“There’s also puppies,” Mina continues. “A dog had puppies up here, like in the back of the cemetery, and there used to be 11 but a couple of them died.” “One’s called Scrappy Doo, which turned out to be a girl, even though we thought it was a boy.”
Stuart tells of a Good Samaritan veterinarian who offered help free of charge. “Scrappy Doo had puppies last year—and this is part of the problem—she had a big litter, and most of them died. But fortunately, by the grace of God, there was a vet out on Highway 280 who decided to take those that survived, and he adopted them out, found homes for them. Scrappy Doo was born in a previous litter here, and now Scrappy is a full-grown female still hanging out with her mom in the cemetery.”
Lisa Stewart, who works at the Birmingham Museum of Art and volunteers on weekends at Tigers for Tomorrow (a large cat sanctuary near Attalla, Alabama), first became aware of the stray dog issues at Oak Hill while going to the cemetery on her lunch hour.
“I had seen this Shar Pei [Baby Doll] several years ago somewhere around the civic center,” Stewart says. “Then I started going to the cemetery at lunchtime just because it’s so pretty, and there was that Shar Pei.” Like the Oates family, she has also adopted one of the “ghost dogs,” as Mina has dubbed them, from a litter born underneath the caretaker’s house at Oak Hill. “I ended up taking one, and somebody with a local animal advocate group took the rest and found homes for all of them. I was hoping I could catch the mother so that I could at least get her fixed.”
The plight of stray animals at Oak Hill Cemetery, as well as the irresponsibility of pet owners, prompted Mina Oates to write of the creatures that roam the cemetery grounds. Mina first wrote about the ghost dogs at age six for a literary journal published by the Advent Episcopal School she attends. (A year later, she flew to Wisconsin to accept an award for winning an essay contest through the University of Wisconsin.) Her parents sent her story, reprinted below, to Black & White.
Hi! My name is Mina, age 8. My dad works at Oak Hill Cemetery. And you know what he has there? Ghost dogs. Oh no, not those kinds of ghost dogs. I mean thrown out, left alone, sick dogs. And you know who does that? Us. A lot of us are rich and live in rich neighborhoods, but when we have a dog that we don’t want, we drive to this poor neighborhood and throw our dog out in my dad’s cemetery and let it die.
It is very sad.
My dad and I do our best to help these unwanted dogs. We have even named them. I’ll tell you some: There is Baby Doll, Mama, Baby, Buck, Chase and Leo, Spike, and Buttercup. They are all very sweet. And guess what? Spike and Buttercup are babies! There were more babies—there used to be 11 babies but now there are 7.
Lubka was a starved Husky puppy with a shattered leg. She was barely alive when my dad found her. She had been left by a tombstone. We took her to the vet. They had to do surgeries on her but they saved her. She came to live with our family.
Or last year—a little black doggie was left at the cemetery right after Christmas. We took him home and named him Lucky.
Buck was thrown out of a car. He wandered around for a few days and left. He came back many months later, in the winter. He had lost all his hair except a little tuft on the top of his head. He was covered with mange sores. His joints were swollen and one eye was blind. It was very cold outside. He was looking for shelter. My dad tried to feed him but he couldn’t eat. When the Animal Control lady came to pick him up she knelt down and put her hand on his head. And you know what happened? Buck started crying. Not just inside. He cried with sorrow, his dog eyes closed. This may have been the only act of human kindness he has ever known, the last one.
That’s why we need to save our dogs. If you don’t want them, find a home for them.