Bidding a dignified farewell to a pet? Not in Lithuania

  • 2012-10-03
  • By Linas Jegelevicius

SAYING GOODBYE: Animals are not to be treated like old furniture, says Simona Sakinyte (left), along with Natalija Zuchbaja.

KLAIPEDA - If you are a Westerner smitten with your four-pawed feline or canine friend, then you don’t want to hear how most dogs and cats end their earthly journey in Lithuania: by being dumped in garbage dumpsters, buried in backyards, or euthanized in a local veterinary clinic.
Frankly, this is something I cannot see happening to my six-year-old posh Siberian cat, but, as a matter of fact, living in Klaipeda, the third Lithuanian city, I have very little choice to depart with her in a dignified manner, assuming, of course, that I will live longer than her.

Vilnius is the pioneer
“The European way of life has perhaps encompassed all spheres of Lithuanians’ lives, but when it comes to saying the final goodbye to pets, many compatriots still do that in a very primordial - and cruel way: disposing of the cadaver as if a piece of obsolete furniture, into a nearby dumpster or in the nearest forest. In that regard, we have a lot in common with the best Western practice in learning to bid a proper farewell to our critters,” Simona Sakinyte, deputy director at 5 Pedutes, an animal shelter in Klaipeda and animal care volunteer, told The Baltic Times.
Vilnius is the only Lithuanian city to have an official pet cemetery. But the pioneering municipality could not have foreseen how awry things would go after it fenced off a considerable lot on the outskirts of the capital for this exquisite purpose – pet burials.

“A sickish striving to cash in, for some, has overcome and mired the nice idea. Thus some weird cat owner, with presumably over 20 felines at home, has cordoned off a pretty large piece of the designated land, stuck in a couple dozen burial-site marking sticks with planks saying ‘Occupied.’ When approached by other pet owners, he explained that he is going to bury his cats in the marked sites, though all of them are still just fine,” said a dog owner in Vilnius, complaining to a Vilnius newspaper.

People are shrewd?
That such an apparent weirdo is seemingly just one of those willing to secure a dog or cat burial site in advance. “Frankly, there are plenty of such ‘booked in advance’ burials. The 20-cat owner, whom I talked to, admitted that he has no intentions whatsoever to ask for the pet burial services we are providing. What he wanted was to slice off a chunk of the land, hoping that some day it will get pricey, and he would be able to cash in,” Romas Svirskas, director of Smelio pilis (Sand Castle), an enterprise specializing in animal funeral services, admonished.
Vesta Auskalniene, head of Lese, an animal shelter in Vilnius, agrees with him, saying that free land designated for animal graves stokes quite another kind of interest – occupying it and profiting from it later.
“People are shrewd. Even when it comes to burying pets,” she says.

But the testimonials do not convince Saulius Valickas, chief specialist of the Municipal Services Division at Vilnius municipality, who says the claims of such audacious behavior “must be exaggerated.”
“A lot of Vilnius residents cannot even afford to take their deceased pet to the cemetery. It is hard to believe that they would buy a burial site for their dog or cat from some shady pet lot peddler,” he told the daily Lietuvos Rytas.
Nevertheless, Vilnius pet owners cheered the municipality’s decision, although admitting it should have been passed much earlier.

Having set up the territory for pet graves, Vilnius authorities also set certain rules for them: a burial site cannot exceed one square meter, tombs cannot be higher than 0.6 meters, and animals must be buried as deep as one meter or more.
With the cemetery over a year in business, over 50 pet owners have taken advantage of the possibility. Nevertheless, considering that the real number of cats and dogs in Vilnius is perhaps 500-fold bigger than that, the question of where and how Vilnius residents depart with their critters leads to the grim picture described at the beginning of the story…

Others have to catch up
Meanwhile, other municipalities have to catch up with the capital in bringing a more humane approach in their farewell to pets. Neither Kaunas nor Klaipeda municipalities have yet appointed lots for pet cemeteries, though in Kaunas alone there are over 13,000 domestic animals.
When a local vet told Dalia, a Kaunas resident, about the demise of her beloved rabbit and suggested “euthanasia” for the long eared mammal for a small fee, she says she was shocked into disbelief and… discovery of how these things cruelly work in Lithuania.

“I was really aghast and astounded,” she confessed to a local newspaper.
Instead of nodding to the vet’s suggestion, she buried the pet in her grandmother’s countryside garden. Sure, semi-secretly, to eschew all the ‘ohhs’ and ‘ewws,’ still the usual reaction from many neighbors unable to grasp that a pet can be loved as much as a human being. And, therefore, must be given a proper farewell.

Animal treatment is improving
“Sadly, a lot of Lithuanians still treat their animals like a household utensil or decor. The social and psychological facets of the coexistence Westerners have formed with their pets, obviously, are often missing in a man-and-pet relationship in Lithuania,” Sakinyte noted. She, nevertheless, added: “But things, with more and more Lithuanians travelling abroad, are slowly improving. Like any Western country, Lithuania has developed a bullish pet food and accessory market. What needs to be done now is to stride a step further -  open pet cemeteries, like elsewhere in the modern world. This would mark a quality improvement in the human and feline or canine relationship.”

A dog grave next to a human cemetery
Though the issue of a pet cemetery in Klaipeda has been discussed on numerous occasions on different levels, it has so far not moved an inch towards enactment. Meanwhile, some animal lovers have even gone so far as to, what is for many inconceivable, honor their passed-away animals.
A Klaipeda resident buried his dog right behind the fence of the Lebartai cemetery, the largest of this kind of place in the seaport. The dog owner also erected a tomb for his four-legged friend and etched an epitaph.
That led to front-page headlines in local media and mostly condemning posts on local Web sites.
“This is gross… That is unacceptable and tarnishes memory of the late humans…” the commentators fumed, but some came in defense of the shenanigan. “It is the 21st century, and we’re in the EU boat, so the EU practices when it comes to pets should be applied in Lithuania as well. So far it is not, therefore, some Klaipeda pet owners who bring their cats and dogs as far as to a pet cemetery in Latvia, close to Riga,” says Viktoras Janeliunas, a dog owner in Klaipeda.

Municipality has not yet decided
A few years ago, entrepreneurs from Vilnius approached Klaipeda authorities with a request to allot a free plot on the outskirts of the city for a pet cemetery. But the municipal heads frowned. Nevertheless, local pet lovers balked and their efforts led to forming a commission tasked to review “possible solutions in the matter.”
“The Commission will deliberate not only the proposal of opening a pet cemetery, but will also come up with suggestions on how to improve relationships among pet owners and those who maintain that a dog or a cat in the next door apartment bothers them. The municipality has not decided yet on a location of the pet cemetery, but we’ve agreed it will be established and run by a private, not municipal entity,” Arturas Sulcas, deputy mayor of Klaipeda, asserted.

Even pet carers lack unanimity of need for pet cemetery
The idea may, nevertheless, take some time. “For me, it’s not about love for pets first, but about the cost of land. It is expensive everywhere in the world. In Klaipeda, too. You cannot expect that the authorities will just gracefully slice off a chunk of it and invite all animal owners to bury their pets there. Whoever wants to depart with their pet in a decent way does so by burying it in a garden or on the outskirts of a forest. But, certainly, there are people who would like to have a designated pet cemetery in the city, and the authorities should turn their ears to their needs,” Asta Norviliene, chairwoman of Klaipeda’s Feline Club, said to The Baltic Times.
Meanwhile, if you happen to stumble upon a little tomb with an etched figure of a happy dog or cat somewhere, don’t turn away. There is nothing blasphemous about the act. For true animal lovers, such a last tribute to their purring or yapping friend is mere gratitude for the long-lasting and loving human and mammal relationship.