Every day for 8 years, Mary Townsend walked past the Ocean County Park’s K9 cemetery, but until someone pointed it out, she never knew it was there.
That space is the final resting place for the dogs who served the county in various roles—how many dogs were there has remained a mystery for years. The markers are inconsistent and many graves have no headstone at all. Townsend, a master gardener, is determined to change that.
In late 2015, shortly after finding out about the existence of the cemetery, Townsend volunteered to take on a renovation of the space with the support of the Toms River Lions Club, for which she is the secretary and her husband is the past president.
The sheriff’s office gave the green light, and an November 2015 article by reporter Jerry Carino of the Asbury Park Press brought attention to the cemetery and Townsend’s project. At the time, Townsend believed about 11 dogs were buried in the cemetery. After extensive research by the sheriff’s office, led by Sgt. John Adams of K-9 Unit, it was determined that there are actually 38 dogs, going back as early as the 1930s. The latest dog to be buried there is Atos, who recently worked security at Pope Francis’s Philadelphia visit and the Super Bowl. He passed away from cancer in October 2015.
Another dog named Rebel was buried there after passing away in 1979. After seeing a photo of the headstone in the newspaper article, Townsend was contacted by an elderly woman who once worked at the local juvenile detention center where Rebel was stationed.
“She told me that one teenager there was very withdrawn but Rebel used to sit next to him,” Townsend says. “He started to pet the dog, then play with the dog, then eventually he came out of his shell.”
Townsend plans to make the space a woodland garden with benches and headstones listing each dog's name and years alive.
“The plantings will be deer-resistant and provide shading,” Townsend says. “I don’t want anything formal—no boxwoods or tulips. It’ll be a lot of fast-growing plants.” Adams told the APP that renovating the park has always been a goal of his and that he’s “excited to have this progress.”
Although it won’t be possible to place the headstones exactly at the gravesite of each dog, Townsend plans to arrange them in an organized design that will allow visitors to pay their respects to the dogs who served the county. She also hopes to install information kiosks, which, she speculates, will list the dogs’ handler, years of service, and job.
Since the publication of the APP article and several follow-up pieces, Townsend says she’s had an outpouring of support. Two Eagle Scouts have signed up to assist with the project (she’s still looking for one more) and several others have made donations and offered supplies. The Ocean County Roughnecks, a motorcycle club, is hosting a fundraising event: “Steaks, Cigars and Whiskey,” will be held at Sunsets in Neptune on April 30 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $80 and can be purchased by calling 908-910-7772 or emailing email@example.com.
“Everyone has just jumped on board,” she says. “Everyone loves the dogs who put their lives on the line. They should be honored and recognized.”
Once the garden is completed, which Townsend hopes to happen early this summer, she plans on holding a ceremony and inviting the living handlers of the dogs buried there. She’ll also be maintaining the park going forward.
“I just love this project,” she says. “I thought it would just be a little clean-up, but it’s just exploded.”
If you’re interested in volunteering or making a donation, contact Mary Townsend directly at 609-364-1804 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
See a video about the cemetery by the APP below: