If there was ever a project to affirm the bond between people and pets, it’s the latest partnership between West Laurel Hill Cemetery and the Women’s Animal Center. Both nonprofits are celebrating their 150th anniversaries this year, and each shares a distinct mission to serve both two- and four-legged family members. “It’s a bond that doesn’t end, and so it’s also celebrated in death,” says Gwen Kaminski, director of development and marketing at the Women’s Animal Center.
The nation’s first animal shelter, WAC has spawned 3,500 kindred shelters and rescues nationwide. It’s now partnering with the Laurels pet cemetery and center, which opened a year ago this June. Just off Righter’s Ferry Road in Lower Merion Township, the Laurels provides space for pet owners to meet with funeral planners, and there’s a room for private visitation and receptions.
A new onsite service offers a water-based alternative to traditional flame-based cremation. Whereas cremation lasts a few hours, aquamation (alkaline hydrolysis) is an 18-20-hour process. WLHC’s first subject was a pet alligator, and the cemetery has had 15 burials since last June. Seven states have approved aquamation for humans—though not Pennsylvania. “We’re working to change that,” says Deborah Cassidy, director of sales, marketing and family services at WLHC.
The resulting aquamation affluent can be used on lawns, in gardens or in the pet cemetery, producing speedier, lush growth. The process furthers West Laurel Hill’s eco-friendly practices. “We never want to turn away a family, whatever its need for death services,” says Cassidy. “A pet’s death can be just as devastating as a human’s—all you have to do is meet with these families.”
WAC took in 3,200 animals last year. Attaining no-kill status, the center is committed to rehabilitating and finding homes for all medically or behaviorally treatable animals. It has a full-service veterinary hospital on site, offering affordable care to help prevent pet surrenders. Last year, WAC’s euthanasia services and dedicated comfort room assisted with 600 family pets.
The shelter’s leading founder, Caroline Earle White, also helped establish the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Excluded from the board as a woman, she assembled 30 female animal advocates, giving birth to the Women’s PSPCA on April 14, 1869. It’s now the WAC.
The pioneering group raised over $7,000 in its first year, putting any gift over $5 in a permanent fund that’s used to this day. They also founded auxiliary branches in neighboring counties. All continue to operate as shelters in Chester County (Brandywine Valley SPCA), Delaware County (Providence Animal Center) and Montgomery (Montgomery County SPCA). “They had such few rights and so little influence,” says Kaminski. “But they used what voice they had to make difference for creatures that couldn’t speak for themselves.”
Several of WAC’s original founders and supporters are buried at West Laurel Hill. Among them are Cornelia Wells Sellers and her husband, Coleman Sellers. Both were forces in the animal welfare movement. He was a prominent inventor, head of the Franklin Institute, and instrumental in the development of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. She was among the WAC’s first vice presidents, supporters and fundraisers. Coleman—whose grandfather was artist Charles Wilson Peale—served as vice president of the International Humane Society and the American Humane Association. He was also president of the PSPCA. The Sellers were responsible for introducing carbonous oxide gas, a more humane method of euthanasia, to WAC.
Also buried at WLHC are Abby Ann Taylor Longstreth and her husband, William Collins Longstreth, who made their home in Media. She was involved in the Women’s SPCA. He founded a successful bank and life insurance company.
“Our founders were a force,” says Kaminski. “They broke barriers and turned advocacy into action. Obviously, their work resonated as other shelters sprung up. Think of the repercussions—not just in the number of shelters but in the lives changed.”
Commemorative events for WAC’s 150th began in April with an Animal Shelter National Day of Service, then a Phillies game recognition at Citizens Bank Park. In the fall, it will commemorate its 25 years in Bensalem and dedicate the Annie L. Lowry historical watering trough at its facility. Sometime in mid-fall, there will be a re-dedication of the “Drink Gentle Friends” fountain on Bainbridge Green in Queen Village, WAC’s original Philadelphia location. And there’s the dedication of a Pennsylvania Historical Marker at the location of WAC’s first offices on Chestnut Street.
WHLC’s 150th kickoff was in January. Other events include a time capsule to honor its first burial, and a meet-and-greet with the heirs of founder John J. Smith. In September, WLHC’s signature pet event, Woof, Wag & Walk, will benefit WAC.
“We’re what started changing America’s way of thinking—the embracing of pets as family members,” Kaminski says. “With all that divides us, animals are a uniting factor, something we can all agree deserve our efforts.”