WILMINGTON, Del. — A headstone with a person's name was found during a cleanup at the Delaware SPCA Stanton location Saturday, thesecond time evidence of possible human remainshas been discovered at the site.
Officials previously said no people were buried at the sprawling shelter property, which closed in June amid financial issues and was expected to be sold.
An estimated 1,600 animal remains are in graves 3 feet deep at the non-profit animal welfare organization's 455 Stanton Christiana Road pet cemetery. About 40 volunteers gathered Saturday morning to locate and clean gravestones and clear weeds — in hopes that the land won’t be sold and developed.
They eventually uncovered more than they expected.
SPCA volunteer Kathryn Herel said volunteers brushing dirt away from a marker for a pet named Dazy found an accompanying headstone for Frances S. Paruszewski, who died in July 1990 at age 82.
SPCA attorney Geoffrey R. Johnson of Jenkintown, Pa., told The News Journalearlier this year that the presence of human remains in the cemetery was "absurd." He did not return calls Saturday.
Interim SPCA Executive Director Tiffany Briddell also was not immediately available to comment.
The group is the oldest animal welfare organization and at one point handled dog control for all three
The organization in recent years has run into financial difficulties, and former Delaware SPCA executive director Andrea Perlak said she wanted to market the land for $9.8 million. Proceeds were to benefit the organization's smaller Georgetown animal shelter, the only one in Sussex County. The group in May posted a statement on Facebook saying the organization wanted to consolidate services.
Pet owners were outraged when they were advised that the 21 acres would be sold, creating the possibility that graves would be disturbed. Some took matters into their own hands, digging up long-passed pets to cremate or relocate remains. At one point, Delaware State Police corporals and a trooper were dispatched to the graveyard to dig for bones of Captain, the nation's first police dog.
Evidence of human remains was found and acknowledged by the SPCA earlier this year — an owner named “M. Ligon” alongside her pet, Lady. The News Journal, which has chronicled the ongoing dispute about remains on the site, reported the ashes were those of nationally recognized sculptor Maurine Ligon, who died following a car accident. Board meeting minutes obtained by the newspaper showed the group approved interring the ashes in December 1980.
The SPCA this summer notified the state Division of Public Health and submitted a cemetery registration application. Briddell in a letter to the agency said that after clearing brush from the site, they located "the headstone of Ms. Ligon and her pet Lady."
"We will not remove the stone or dig to confirm the ashes of Ms. Ligon," Briddell wrote. "We will accept the stone as proof."
A state Health Department spokeswoman in August said registering the Ligon cemetery parcel means that the Delaware SPCA has to commit to its care in perpetuity. The group would have to apply for a permit to relocate human remains. Pet cemeteries are not regulated by the state.
Delaware SPCA board President Diane Ferry told The News Journal on Friday that officials are "reassessing the disposition of the shelter," and that the seven-member board is scheduled to discuss the issue at a Sept. 19 meeting. Reopening has not been ruled out.
Volunteers on Saturday preserved the Paruszewski headstone site, and Herel said it was unclear what the next step would be.
It is not immediately clear if the remains of Paruszewski are at the site.
A burial database operated by the Diocese of Wilmington also lists a Frances Paruszewski who died on July 18, 1990, as being buried at All Saints Cemetery in Milltown.
No additional information about Paruszewski was immediately available Saturday evening.
The marker was found during a four-hour cleanup in which volunteers used shovels, rakes, weed whackers and bare hands to rehabilitate plots marked by orange flags. Future cleanups are slated for Oct. 8 and Nov. 12.
"It's an extension of their care for their pets," said Herel. "For them to feel it isn't being respected or would be developed is heartbreaking for them."
The site has become "somewhat unmanageable," Herel said. Marigolds are overgrown with weeds. Gravestones, marked with names like “Missy Barksdale” and “My Beloved Snuffles," have been covered in dirt and brush over years without maintenance.
"We know there are stones here we haven't even found yet," she said.
Herel said the cleanup events are a way to bring people back, share stories and restore the location. The event was organized by Citizens United to Save the DE SPCA Stanton Shelter.
"We want to get it back to a beautiful restful place that gives you some comfort," she said.
The cemetery also includes Igloo, a Brandywine Zoo bear, and Minnie Pearl, a goat, amid thousands of pets.
For North Wilmington resident Allison Ball, 56, volunteering is a way to honor her mother, who worked with the SPCA for years.
“We have a lot of ties here,” she said.
Katharine Olinchak, 70, sweated in the heat Saturday morning. The Newark resident’s 5-pound dog Raisin was cremated and buried at the site in the early 80s. In retirement, she and her husband want to volunteer “where our heart is,” she said.
Newark resident Marian Morefield attended Saturday’s cleanup event with her husband of almost 50 years.
“A lot of these animals, their people have passed on or can’t be here and they were put here for eternity — or were supposed to be,” she said. “That’s what keeps me coming back.”
Morefield buried four dogs at the pet cemetery, including her childhood dog Ginger, who died in 1968. Morefield said she and her husband dug up three of the dogs — pre-emptive of the potential land sale — but were unable to find Ginger’s remains.
“It’s been stressful, and it still is,” she said. “I have no closure.”