BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — About a dozen unmarked graves of people buried at an old cemetery that partly overlaps the grounds of the Birmingham Zoo would be dug up and relocated to clear the way for a new cougar exhibit, under a proposal submitted by the zoo.
Zoo officials have applied for a permit from the Alabama Historical Commission and presented a plan to relocate graves on the property, said Chris Pfefferkorn, president and CEO of the Birmingham Zoo.
“We want to treat these people with the respect and dignity that they deserve, and we wanted to know what that process is,” Pfefferkorn told AL.com.
Long before the Birmingham Zoo and the nearby Birmingham Botanical Gardens existed, the property was known as the Red Mountain Cemetery and Southside Cemetery, an indigent burial ground for more than 4,700 people. Many of the people were buried in unmarked graves between 1888 and about 1905.
About 12 to 15 graves are believed to rest within the footprint of the zoo’s newest planned exhibit.
The cemetery was abandoned when a graveyard for the indigent opened in Ketona in 1909. Most of the cemetery land on the zoo property is unmarked except for a small, fenced area that remains undisturbed.
“With the majority of this, nobody knows who is where. But we still want to treat the people with the respect they deserve in this process,” Pfefferkorn said.
If the zoo moves forward with its proposed plans, an archeologist from the University of Alabama would excavate the site and collect any remains and items interred there.
“We would rebury them as close as we can to where we found them,” Pfefferkorn said. “We would reinter them with a ceremony and then a marker to make sure that people know that these folks are resting here in that space.”
The zoo also intends to add a marker to identify the cemetery in addition to graphics and interpretive information about the history of the area. Pfefferkorn noted the variety of the people interred in the site, each with their own life experiences going back to Birmingham’s earliest days.
“These people had stories, so we want to tell some of that story,” he said.
Meanwhile, the new exhibit, called Cougar Crossing, is to be 15,000 to 20,000 square feet (1,400-1,800 square meters). It will be located in the Alabama Wilds area of the park and house Bob, the zoo’s current bobcat, in addition to a new cougar. Cougar Crossing is to feature a public viewing area along with two outdoor habitats.
Officials hope to open the exhibit next summer.