Pets find an eternal home here

OKEECHOBEE — For some animal lovers, the legend of the “rainbow bridge” – and the “forever playground” that humans like to think awaits our pets on the other side – just isn’t enough consolation when one of their own has died.

A monument marker along the road signals the cemetery entrance.

No, the image of their beloved animal playmate waiting to greet them when they themselves pass to the great beyond, simply won’t do. These people want a place to visit, some tangible reminder of the pet that gave them so much love and pleasure while alive.

For those folks, the solution is as close as a phone call. Twin Oaks Pet Cemetery & Crematorium, situated on the peaceful prairie of northern Okeechobee County, has been serving pet owners, veterinarians, clinics and shelters for 20 years, and they’ll come and pick up your late pet for you.

Twin Oaks is owned and run by retired veterinarian Thomas K. Nicholl.

Owned and run by retired veterinarian Thomas K. Nicholl, the 20-acre property is home to a state-of-the-art facility that has one of the few oversized units available in Florida for whole-horse cremations. The grounds are open 24/7/365 for people to visit if they want, and a deed restriction means the land will remain a pet cemetery for at least 99 years – until 2096. More about that later.

Nicholl is from Northern Ireland originally, to which the Gaelic lilt evident in his speaking hints broadly as soon as you talk with him. The tall, balding, soft-spoken man practiced for decades as a physician to people’s animals, starting in the United Kingdom, later in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, then for many years after he moved to Florida in 1996.

The easygoing Dr. Nicholl’s move into the afterlife aspect of animal care was gradual.

A few markers are enough to elicit a laugh from a casual visitor.

“It was just an idea I had for a long time,” he said. “I started off in Martin County. I couldn’t get the zoning. I actually knew one of the commissioners, and it was right about the time that Stephen King brought that Pet Semetery book out, and he says to me, ‘Look, I don’t care what you do, what you tell us, how much you pay us, it’s going to be No.’ So, then I moved out to St. Lucie County and spent about 10 grand trying to get zoning. They turned me down at the last minute.”

So Nicholl came to the wide open spaces of Okeechobee and found it easier to get the needed approvals with the addition of the aforementioned 99-year deed restriction.

That’s an important selling point not only to those who might want to bury their pets or inter their ashes at Twin Oaks; it also reassures neighbors that the land won’t be taken for housing or commercial development during their lifetimes. Nicholl says it had more or less become a condition of approval by the late 1990s when he found the site he wanted for the graveyard and crematorium in Okeechobee County.

One of the more poignant tombstones on the grounds commemorates Elliott.

“That also happens,” he said. “People bury animals and then, 20 years later, the land becomes developable and suddenly it’s worth a lot of money, and they just go and take up all the headstones and develop the land. It hasn’t happened out this way, but I know for a fact it has happened in Vero Beach, Palm Beach and Martin counties,” Nicholl explained.

“The [pet] owners are obviously very distressed about it, but a lot of times there’s nothing they can do about it because they don’t have paperwork on it, or it was 20 years ago and it was all unofficial…” his voice trailed off.

It’s reassuring to clients to know that their pet is in a place that will always be there for them.

The cemetery does private burials in a pet owner’s choice of areas. There are designated parts for dogs, cats and horses, and the prices vary for plots in gardened, shaded, and wide-open areas of the burial ground.

“Private burials, we usually do one or two a week,” Nicholl said. “We also do, about once a week, what they call a country burial, or a common burial, where it’s just disposal and we dig a hole and there’ll be 25 or so animals put in there. It’s the owners’ choice what they want to do,” he explained.

Most of his clients come referred by their veterinarians, or the disposal can be handled directly through them. Many choose cremation, but there are at least 500 animals buried at Twin Oaks, Nicholl said.

“We’ve cremated chimps and tigers,” he said, but not for people who kept them as pets. “We had a couple of rescue societies as clients, for whom we took care of their deceased animals, ones they refuged.”

Some of those were bred by the clients and were still 100 percent wild, with their claws intact, said cemetery manager Sarah Jean Rocky.

There are several animals’ remains in the graveyard who served in law enforcement, Nicholl said, noting that they service sheriff’s offices in several counties, as well as the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office Mounted Division. Those animals are interred in a special section of honored ground.

One of the stranger requests they get, Nicholl and Rocky said, is for exhumations.

“There are some people who move to the area, who have pets buried elsewhere, and they want to exhume them and move them here. We’ve done that some number of times, including for a monkey,” he said.

A common request comes from repeat customers, who want to bury another family animal nearby or next to the grave of a previous pet. Unless they buy plots “pre-need,” though, Nicholl noted, that may prove impossible. “We try to accommodate them, but if it’s been several years, their adjoining plot may end up being behind it, in the next row up” due to intervening burials, he explained.

The good news is that “pre-need” purchases are discounted by 15 percent, as long as the plot is not used within 30 days.

A view of the horse burial area.

As both Nicholl and Rocky will readily share, pet owners deal with their grief in many different ways, sometimes rather crazily.

“There was a lady who had never seen love bugs,” Rocky said, who came to visit the grave after burying her dog, and was swarmed by them and trying to shoo the pesky insects away. “She was pretty much distracted,” Nicholl said.

“She never knew what love bugs were,” Rocky explained. “She thought the bugs were going to go down in the ground – into a sealed casket – and attack her dog!”

Nicholl added: “She actually said to me, ‘Can’t you do anything about these?’ I wanted to say, ‘I could make a fortune if I could!’”

But most grief-stricken owners are more like the people who placed a tennis ball among decorations at their dog’s grave and get upset when it’s not there. “The squirrels keep taking it,” Rocky said.

Some clients choose to inscribe a pet’s name on a small plaque affixed to the Wall of Remembrance.

“Some people don’t have kids, and these dogs are their kids.”

Contact Twin Oaks Pet Cemetery & Crematorium at 863-467-6377 or visit www.twinoakspetcemetery.com to learn more.

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