“She was a very mellow, sweet, loving cat, “ said pet owner Candice Bunch.
Cleo the calico kitty was a big part of the Bunch family, but at 16-years-old, she grew very sick. Brian and Candice Bunch made the difficult decision to put Cleo to sleep last November.
They and their two young daughters were devastated.
“It was hard, especially once kids are involved, because our kids were so attached, “ said Candice.
Brian called San Diego Pet Memorial Park and made arrangements to have his cat cremated there.
“So I just went ahead and let them know that we wanted just a basic cremation,” Brian added
Candice added, “And we wanted ashes back for our kids.”
Brian was told a driver from San Diego Pet Memorial would pick up Cleo from the San Diego Humane Society, where she was euthanized. Then San Diego Pet Memorial would cremate her body and call them in a week.
“But then we never heard anything," Candice said. "And I waited and waited and didn't hear it. And I started to feel sick like, okay, something is not right.”
Candice and Brian called San Diego Pet Memorial again in early December.
According to Candice, “They said ‘yes, you know, we have her. You can come pick her up anytime.’ So I came that day and picked her up. And I told him who I was there for, they brought me the bag of the ashes, and you know, said ‘we're so sorry’ and I was on my way. I felt comfort. I felt like ‘hey, I have my kitty back,’ and my kids felt good knowing that we have our cat back. And my daughter even, I think she slept with the ashes that night. “
Brian said a week after they picked up Cleo's ashes from San Diego Pet Memorial Park, he received a voicemail from another company - Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery.
The message said, “Hi this message is for Brian. My name is Melanie. I'm calling from Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery. We have Cleo here in our office safe and sound. We're just calling to see if we can get a payment from you for Cleo.”
Since he already had what he thought were Cleo's ashes, Brian was confused and called Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery immediately. He told the employee there must be some mistake.
Brian said, “And she comes back and she goes 'well, what kind of cat is she? She's a calico and she goes ‘is she black, orange, and white?’ And I go, 'yes.' And she goes,’is there anything specific with it?’ And I go, 'yes, there is.'"
Brian described a one-of-a-kind homemade blanket that Cleo's body had been wrapped in.
“Because she thought that maybe the wrong cat got tagged. But the blanket is what sealed the deal,” Brian said.
Candice Bunch said she was horrified.
Gerry Wellman with Sorrento Valley Pet Cemetery said there was obviously a mix-up when they picked up Cleo's body. There was a miscommunication between Candice and the Humane Society, and Cleo was designated for his company, rather than San Diego Pet Memorial. What Gerry doesn't know is why San Diego Pet Memorial didn't acknowledge there was a problem, why they didn’t acknowledge that they never had Cleo in the first place.
Gerry Wellman said, “It's not ethical, because they didn't have the pet to begin with. “
Last month, NBC 7 Investigates looked into San Diego Pet Memorial Park. They promised pets ashes were being scattered at sea, but NBC 7 Investigates found some of the remains were actually being tossed into a dumpster.
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to San Diego Pet Memorial Park's manager Mick Palermo who didn't respond to our request for a comment.
Brian also reached out to Mick, who he says told him they would conduct an internal investigation.
Brian said, “He completely backed up his people. I mean it just seems like he thought there was no way that anybody that worked there could have done something wrong. When, obviously, something wasn't right because we have proof that our cat is somewhere else.”
Mick Palermo never told the family what happened or whose ashes they were given. Meanwhile, Sorrento Valley cremated Cleo's remains for free.
Candice said, “When I went to pick her up, they said that they had taken picture in case I wanted to see and to know for my peace of mind that that was her for sure. And that was really hard for me.”
While they are happy to have their Cleo back, they feel bad that they still have the mystery remains.
Brian Bunch is a Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy. He said next time he is out to sea, he plans on scattering the mystery remains. He said it's the only way he can guarantee the pet - whomever it belongs to - gets a dignified farewell.