Cat Stash Fever in Petaluma, California
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Petaluma police have arrested a 61-year-old San Francisco woman who kept at least 150 cats in a two-story green house she bought exclusively for the cats to live in.

Police responded to a vandalism call at the house at 210 Baker St. in a residential neighborhood of Petaluma at about 1 a.m. yesterday and were greeted by an overwhelming stench of urine and feces drifting through several shattered windows and an open screen door, said police Sgt. Ralph Evans.

Fearing the stench might be the result of a dead body, one of the officers went inside the house and found cats everywhere, living in horrible conditions.

At least three cats were found dead, including one that had been partly cannibalized.

"When he opened the door, he was overcome by the smell of feces and urine," said Evans. "All of the floors of the residence were covered with it."

As police and firefighters were inspecting the house just before 7 a.m. yesterday -- wearing hazardous materials suits -- the cats' guardian, Marilyn Barletta, drove up in her Mercedes station wagon to feed the cats. She was arrested and later charged with felony cruelty to animals.

Inspectors retrieved about 85 cats from the property and took them to an animal shelter yesterday. They were back on the scene this morning to try to retrieve as many as 100 more, many of which were hiding in walls and in the garage.

"(Barletta) admitted it had gotten out of hand," said Nancee Tavares, the manager for Petaluma Animal Services, who helped question Barletta at police headquarters. "She thought she was doing good and she started with maybe 10 cats, but they weren't spayed or neutered and it got out of hand. She believes that any life is preferable to being euthanized."

According to Evans, Barletta bought the $400,000 house five years ago for the cats after Marin Humane Society officials refused to take any more of her cats for their adoption program. Barletta, a retired real estate agent who lives on Polk Street in San Francisco, never lived at the sparsely furnished house but would visit it daily to feed the cats, Tavares said.

Over the past five years, the cats apparently bred without restrictions, multiplying rapidly until there were several generations of litters living there, Tavares said. On average, a female cat can have two litters per year with about six kittens each, Tavares said.

Barletta had set up an appointment to see about having Petaluma Animal Services take some of the cats off her hands, Tavares said.

"She had that appointment scheduled with me today and she was hoping some of them could be adopted," said Tavares, who described Barletta as well- dressed, cooperative, articulate, sad and overwhelmed.

Calls to Barletta's San Francisco home were not returned.

Barletta was charged with animal cruelty and posted bail yesterday. Tavares said her department was trying to get Barletta to agree to release custody of the cats so they can be immediately assessed for diseases. If she doesn't agree to that, the case will have to go before the animal services department for a hearing, Tavares said.

Tavares said Barletta fits the description of an animal hoarder, which is described in an online psychiatry article as a person who is in a state of denial that prevents him or her from seeing filth or understanding that animals are sick, dying or dead.

"It's not intentional cruelty but she certainly had to see that they were suffering," Tavares said.

Neighbor Steve Meadows, 52, lives across the street and said he had no idea what was going on because the place seemed well-maintained and his sense of smell isn't so good after working at a refinery for 20 years.

"It's sick," said Meadows. "They ought to make an example of the lady. I'm an animal lover myself and to see something like this makes me really angry."

Greg Mitchell, 49, a landscaper who also lives across the street, said neighborhood cats would flock to the house at night and could be heard moaning, screeching and fighting.

"It had been going on for years," Mitchell said. "I knew her. I met her when I bought the house four years ago. I thought she was just a quirky lady. She was well-dressed, she drove a nice car. She didn't seem to be (unstable)."

Tavares said her department had been getting calls from neighbors for a year about the cat problem but Barletta always refused to let inspectors on her property.

And despite the conditions that were found inside the house, there were no indications of a serious problem based on how the property looked from the outside, Tavares said.

"We'd go to the door and we couldn't smell anything outside and it looked pretty clean," Tavares said.

But inspectors were not prepared for the conditions inside the house when they went yesterday to retrieve the cats.

"It was incredibly bad," Tavares said. "There were cats in drawers, they were in the walls."

Inspectors found a dead cat in the garbage, another in a cat carrier and a third that had been partly cannibalized in the refrigerator, which was shut off.

Most of the cats were feral, Tavares said, and ranged in size from undernourished kittens to well-fed adults.

"There was definitely a pecking order," Tavares said. "The dominant cats got first pick and the others got the leftovers."

Tavares said she was unsure how much dry food Barletta had to carry with her to feed the cats, but that a cat typically requires at least a cup of food per day. Many empty food bowls were scattered around the house, she said.

"Most of these cats have never been outside in their lives so the outside is terrifying for them," Tavares said. "Many of the adults are totally wild, feral cats. They will have to be put down because there are so many nice lap cats that need homes. Nobody wants feral cats like this."

Many of the cats lashed out and bit inspectors trying to round them up, Tavares said. All of the cats will have to be inspected for diseases and will be evaluated to see whether they are adoptable.

"It breaks our heart," Tavares said. "If they had all been spayed or neutered, this wouldn't have happened."

Chronicle staff writer Peter Fimrite contributed to this report.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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Petaluma Cat 'Hoarder' Arrested
150 Felines -- Some Dead, Sick-- Found in Stench-Filled House

Published on May 23, 2001
© 2001 - The Press Democrat

PETALUMA -- A wealthy San Francisco woman who bought a Petaluma home exclusively to house cats was arrested Tuesday after city animal services officials finally got inside to discover about 150 felines living in filthy conditions.Marilyn Barletta, 55, was a cat "collector'' or "hoarder,'' someone who means well in caring for more and more cats but in doing so returns domestic cats into a wild, or feral state, said Nancee Tavares, Petaluma's animal services manager.

All day Tuesday, a dozen workers from three animal services agencies caught and trapped cats in the two-story home on Baker Street and a garage and granny flat behind the home. They face the same task today."It's exhausting and discouraging and disgusting,'' Tavares said.

Neighbors complained to the city for more than a year.

But Barletta wouldn't allow Animal Services officials inside. Only recently did she agree to meet with them to discuss putting some of the cats up for adoption, Tavares said. Then vandals broke several windows of the home Monday night. "That was the first time we had legal access to assess the problem,'' Tavares said.
A neighbor reported hearing windows being broken and Petaluma police responded to find what veteran officers said was something they had never seen.

The buildings were brimming with felines of all ages.

The cats were apparently not permitted to leave the buildings. Feces and urine built up so much that wood floors warped.

Some of the cats were dead, sick or injured. Others were pregnant or with kittens.

Some had even been cannibalized. Many more may have to be euthanized.

"You could not believe the smell. You could smell it down the street,'' Police Sgt. Tim Lyons said.
Animal Services was called in and a few hours later, police arrested Barletta on suspicion of animal cruelty, Lyons said.She was booked at the Sonoma County Jail and released on bail Tuesday.

Police notified San Francisco animal control officers to ask them to check the woman's residence there for similar problems, Lyons said.

It was unknown who broke the windows in the residence, but police found a ladder in the yard and suspect it was used for the break-in. So far the incident appears unrelated to the cat complaints, police said.

Barletta probably started with a couple of dozen cats five years ago when she bought the then year-old home, Tavares said.She never lived in the home and drove north from San Francisco to feed the cats. Neighbors said she often arrived for the daily feeding at about 1:30 p.m.

But Barletta never talked with neighbors about her cats even as their numbers exploded and forced her to house them throughout the house, garage and granny flat."You could see them sitting in the upstairs windows and garage windows all the time,'' said Alan Wardlow, who lives next door and shares a driveway with Barletta."It started smelling really bad and the cats were fighting,'' he said. "But she never wanted to talk about it. She would just change the subject.''

From the outside the green, wood frame house looks well maintained.

Inside, however, floors, stairs and cabinets were soaked with urine and feces. The interior probably will have to be gutted to get rid of the stench, Tavares said.

There were so many cats, animal control agencies had to buy or borrow carriers from across Sonoma County.

Many of the cats scratched so strongly that they ripped through thick gloves the workers wore. Several workers suffered bites.

Pets Lifeline of Sonoma and the Humane Society of Sonoma County aided Petaluma Animal Services.
The cats will remain in a rabies quarantine for 10 days. The also will be examined for illnesses, such as feline AIDS and leukemia.

Those that are feral cannot be put up for adoption and will be euthanized, Tavares. "If they're adult and wild, there's no way to rehabilitate them,'' she said.

Any eligible for adoptions can't be given away until Barletta released them or is convicted.

You can reach Staff Writer Michael Coit at 521-5470 or e-mail, and Staff Writer Tobias Young at 762-7297 or e-mail

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Petaluma -- Harried animal control officers spent yesterday chasing scores of feral cats through the filth-splattered confines of a Petaluma home that a wealthy San Francisco woman bought exclusively for her felines.

More than 170 cats and kittens had been removed from the reeking two-story house by day's end, but dozens more remained hidden or simply scurried out of reach whenever an officer got too close.

"I've seen people with a few too many animals, but I've never seen anything like this," said Nancee Tavares, Petaluma's animal services manager.

Investigators believe that Marilyn Barletta bought the $400,000 home five years ago solely for her cats -- driving to Petaluma each day in her Mercedes- Benz to feed them -- and that the unhappy felines simply multiplied.

Authorities arrested Barletta, 61, Tuesday and charged her with animal cruelty after finding three dead cats in the house and what they believe to be the remains of others. The retired real estate agent was released from Sonoma County Jail after posting $5,000 bail on Tuesday.

Barletta could not be reached for comment last night. Knocks on the door of her San Francisco home went unanswered.

Barletta's ex-husband, Joseph Barletta, is a former member of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and a former president of the now--defunct San Francisco Newspaper Agency.

Even after a day spent chasing cats in a scene straight out of a madcap Disney movie, seasoned officers still struggled to comprehend the horrors confronting them within the confines of 210 Baker St.

"The conditions are deplorable," Tavares said. "There is urine and feces over everything. The floor is even warped."

Animal control officers from three different agencies donned hazardous- materials suits and masks and used flashlights, catch poles and traps to round up the animals.

The cats were having none of it. They bit and scratched and fought the officers every inch of the way. One especially agile brown-and-white tabby leaped eight feet to escape an officer's wire lariat and scampered to safety beneath a stairwell.

"Damn," said the masked officer as he gagged from the noxious smell. "I thought I had him."

The cats, most of which did not appear to have been spayed or neutered, bred rampantly. Tavares said many of the kittens probably were killed by male cats, a common practice among wild felines.

Investigators found three dead cats, including the remains of one that had been partially eaten by others. The house was littered with suspicious balls of fur that may be mummified cat remains, Tavares said.

Many of the cats are third, fourth and fifth generation, meaning they are essentially wild and will have to be destroyed, Tavares said.

"Nobody wants feral cats like this," she said. "There are so many nice lap cats that need homes. It breaks my heart."

Tavares said her department had been getting complaints for a year from others living on the quiet tree-lined street. Barletta, however, refused to let inspectors on her property. With no external signs of a problem, stymied officers could not demand access to the house, Tavares said.

That problem was resolved in dramatic fashion on Tuesday when police responded to an early-morning report that someone had heaved rocks through the front windows. Police were greeted by an overwhelming stench, said police Sgt. Ralph Evans.

Fearing that the smell might be from a dead body, an officer entered the house and saw that the place had been overrun by cats.

Several hours later, as police and firefighters were inspecting the house, Barletta arrived in her Mercedes-Benz station wagon, apparently to feed her pets. Tavares said Barletta was scheduled to meet with Petaluma Animal Services officials to ask them to take some of the critters off her hands.

She was arrested instead.

"She admitted it had gotten out of hand," said Tavares, who helped question Barletta at police headquarters. "She thought she was doing good. She started with maybe 10 cats, but they weren't spayed or neutered and it got out of hand. She believes that any life is preferable to being euthanized."

It wasn't the first time Barletta had hoarded cats in her home. John Reese of the Marin Humane Society said officials contacted her in 1994 about keeping dozens of cats when she lived in Novato's Bel Marin Keys.

"We tried to convince her to spay and neuter her animals but she would not cooperate," Reese said.

Barletta eventually gave 20 cats to the the Humane Society, which found homes for all of them. Evans said Barletta bought the Petaluma house for the cats after officials refused to accept more of her felines for their adoption program.

Jesse Wardlow, 17, who lives next door to Barletta's house, said her father, Alan, often had to get a ladder and rescue kittens after they knocked the screens off second-story windows. She said the smell emanating from the house had become unbearable during the past six months.

"We only thought there were 50 or 60 cats, which is still crazy," she said. "This is horrible."

Chronicle staff writer David Baker contributed to this report.
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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Woman in Petaluma cat case lost suit
Novato landlords awarded $75,000 for damage to home

Published on May 24, 2001
© 2001- The Press Democrat

Authorities say a misguided attempt to save stray cats spiraled out of control for a woman whose Petaluma home was overrun by nearly 200 cats.Petaluma animal control officers spent a second day Wednesday combing through the house and granny unit, hauling out 179 cats and setting traps for the remaining hard-to-get felines.

Workers were forced to wear masks because of the stench as they used power saws to find cats hiding inside walls. Marilyn Barletta, 61, of San Francisco, was free on $10,000 bail -- a day after she was arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty.Friends said she is a former microbiologist and Manhattan real estate agent who has lived in San Francisco and the North Bay in recent years.

Barletta's cats have caused problems her at least once before.Five years ago in Novato, she left a rental home in such bad shape the owners successfully sued for $75,000.

After leaving Novato, Barletta bought a new 1,600-square-foot home in Petaluma for $250,000 in 1996. She built a series of stalls in the granny unit and installed feeding dishes, cat toys and scratching posts now worn to bare wood. Barletta apparently never lived in the house, commuting daily from San Francisco to feed the cats.It was unclear how many cats Barletta started with. But the cats were not spayed or neutered, and by the time authorities stepped in, the population had spiraled out of control with an estimated five generations living together.The cats, some of which were found dead, sick and even cannibalized, had little human contact and no outside access. The felines ranged from tomcats several years old to closed-eyed kittens only 2 days old.

Nancee Tavares, Petaluma's animal services manager, talked to Barletta before her arrest.She said Barletta was under the mistaken belief she was helping the cats and keeping them from being euthanized."She was unwittingly cruel, not purposefully cruel,'' Tavares said. "They were living in filthy conditions, breeding, with very little human contact and untreated diseases.''

One cat was found dead in an unplugged refrigerator. Tavares said it died with its head stuck in a can of cat food and other cats had cannibalized it.

Tavares said Barletta realized the cats had escalated out of control. "She was kind of relieved. She said it had gotten out of hand,'' Tavares said. Officials said the home might have to be torn down to get rid of the odor.

Taveres said Barletta was clean and well-dressed when she pulled up at the home in her gray Mercedes station wagon for an appointment with animal control officers to address complaints.A search warrant was to be sought if Barletta didn't give authorities access to the home Tuesday, Tavares said.But windows were broken by vandals the night before and police discovered the cats.

Barletta is divorced from Joseph Barletta, who held top posts with TV Guide, Thomson Newspapers and the San Francisco Newspaper Agency. He lives in Napa. Barletta said his ex-wife has a master's degree in Italian literature from the University of Florence. He hasn't had contact with her in 14 years, but he was shocked to hear about the cats."She's an intelligent, articulate woman with a world-class sense of humor,'' he said. "She wouldn't have a venal bone in her body.''

She didn't have pets during the time they lived together. However, they mostly lived in high-rises, he said.
Neighbors said the odor from the house began to get worse over the past year.

The green, two-story wood-frame house looks deceivingly clean and well-kept from the outside. But the sparsely furnished interior was scratched and deteriorated and covered with waste.

Neighbor Jesse Wardlow, 17, said her family is selling their home for $475,000 and was concerned about the smell and sound of cat fights from the house.

"Obviously, there's something unusual about her -- she has a house full of cats. But other than that, she seemed normal,'' Wardlow said of Barletta.Tavares said she started getting calls about a year ago from people who saw cats in the windows but no occupants.

Barletta rebuffed attempts to inspect the home, and animal services officers could not detect the magnitude of the problem from the doorway.Barletta is to be arraigned June 4. Prosecutors have yet to decide if felony or misdemeanor charges will be filed.Barletta can appeal the seizure of the cats during the next 10 days, but Tavares said she is hoping for Barletta's cooperation.Tavares said tame cats or kittens would be offered for adoption. But she said most of the cats are wild, some even biting the cages and scratching at workers, and would have to be euthanized.

Steve Meadows, who lives across the street, said he never suspected a problem even though his dog was attracted to the house.

"I had no idea. It's the kind of thing that makes the skin crawl,'' he said.

"I can't imagine somebody treating critters like that.''

When Sue Nicholson read about Barletta's problems with cats in Petaluma, she was stunned by the number of cats involved. But the damage was familiar. Nicholson and her husband, Craig, rented a Novato house to Barletta, where she kept about 50 cats. Repairs cost $50,000."It was a disaster. She had attempted to do some cleanup with paint, but the smell was just so overpowering,'' she recalled.

To the Nicholsons, who live in Milpitas, Barletta seemed an ideal tenant when she applied to rent the five-bedroom, three-bathroom home in Bel Marin Keys in 1994."We thought, what (damage) could this woman who drives a Mercedes station wagon do, and we learned,'' Nicholson said.

When she moved into the Novato home in February 1994, Barletta told the Nicholsons she had an indoor cat and two outdoor cats.On a visit to the home that fall, Craig Nicholson discovered about 50 cats living in the home.

Barletta moved the cats out about the same time she bought the home in Petaluma. But she remained in the home and sued the Nicholsons to recover her deposit.The Nicholsons countersued, and a Marin Superior Court judge awarded the Nicholsons $75,000.

The battle didn't end until April 25 when the Nicholsons received a $75,000 cashier's check from Barletta. The Nicholsons had placed a lien on the Petaluma home and it had been set for a sheriff's auction April 27. "I'm sure she felt she was right ... she was just trying to do good, to rescue these animals and that we were just creating a problem for her,'' Nicholson said.

Staff Writer Michael Coit and researchers Vonnie Matthews and Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Tobias Young at 762-7297 or e-mail

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Petaluma -- A San Francisco woman who kept almost 200 cats amid jaw-dropping filth inside a Petaluma home said yesterday that the brood began with just two felines in a Marin County house a few years ago and then spiraled out of control.

"All of a sudden there were more and more cats," said Marilyn Barletta, who acknowledged moving dozens of cats from a rented house in Bel Marin Keys to the Petaluma address after she ran into legal trouble with her Marin landlord. "It was a population explosion."

As Sonoma County animal control officials continued for a third day yesterday to capture and cage cats living unattended in a house on Baker Street, Barletta told The Chronicle that she thought she had been doing the right thing. She kept her cat collection in Marin County and then in Petaluma because she didn't want the animals to be put to sleep in area humane shelters, she said.

"I know this sounds bizarre," said Barletta, a 61-year-old retired real estate agent, in an interview outside her Russian Hill apartment in San Francisco. "But I'm a rational person."

Yesterday was the first day in the past four years that Barletta didn't make the drive from San Francisco to Petaluma to feed her cats, she said. She was arrested Tuesday on cruelty-to-animal charges after police investigating a vandalism call found the animals living wild amid an overpowering stench from years' worth of built-up urine and feces.

At least six cats were found dead, one partially eaten by other cats. Barletta had apparently placed the dead animals in empty food bags, but had not removed them from the house.

By yesterday afternoon, animal control officers wearing hazardous material suits and masks had removed 196 cats and kittens from the green and white two- story home with a neat appearance from the outside that gives no hint of the hellish scene inside.

"We're pretty sure we've gotten them all," said Nancee Tavares, the Petaluma animal services manager. "We've searched pretty well, but there could still be some (cats) hiding deep in the walls. We have traps in there for any that may still be in there."

Worried that Barletta might be keeping more cats, animal control officers in San Francisco tried to visit Barletta's Russian Hill home yesterday, but she wasn't home so they left without going inside. Barletta later told The Chronicle that she has cats in the home, but she would not say how many.

Her current situation is all the more bizarre because it has been played out before.

In 1994, Barletta rented a home in the Bel Marin Keys section of Novato from Craig and Sue Nicholson. Craig Nicholson, who was stationed in New York with the Coast Guard then, said he stopped by one day several months after Barletta moved in and could not believe his eyes.

"There were cats all over the house. I counted over 50 at the time," he said yesterday. "I had a flashlight and looked in one of bedrooms and all I could see were cats eyes moving."

Nicholson said the cats had shredded the carpeting. Urine had saturated the attic insulation and soaked through the wallboards and plaster in the bedrooms. He eventually worked out a deal giving Barletta a year to find homes for the cats and clean up the damage in exchange for an extra $5,000 security deposit.

Barletta said her cat tale began in Marin County when her two female cats became pregnant by a neighborhood tom. They soon gave birth to about a dozen kittens. Barletta said she took out classified ads in various newspapers seeking homes for the kittens.

But there were few takers, and Barletta said she was hesitant to take the unwanted animals to the Marin Humane Society.

"I wish people weren't afraid to take animals to the Humane Society for fear they will be killed, but that's how it is," she said.

A while later, Barletta realized her cats were pregnant again.

She finally approached the Marin Humane Society, which helped her adopt out some of the kittens. But Barletta said she had a falling out with officials there about the same time she ran into trouble with her Bel Marin Keyes landlord. That's when she bought the Petaluma house for $250,000.

She moved the cats there and planned to move in herself once she found good homes for the cats, Barletta said.

"I didn't think this would go on for years," she said. "I always thought the end was in sight."

The Nicholsons said it took them three months and $50,000 to clean up the mess after Barletta moved out. Then they were shocked when Barletta sued them for $10,000 in security deposits she said were never returned. The Nicholsons countersued and were eventually awarded $75,000 in damages.

Barletta disputed that figure yesterday, saying she paid only $15,000.

The Nicholsons were not the first to tangle with Barletta and her cats. In the early 1970s, the owners of a Sebastopol rental unit sued Barletta for $7, 000 in damages allegedly caused by her cats. That case was settled out of court in 1994 for an unspecified amount.

Barletta is now appealing an award of $125,000 in attorneys fees awarded to her opponents in yet another suit over some San Anselmo office space she rented so she could start a cat specialty store.

Barletta said she wasn't sure how much money she had spent feeding the cats, but said they went through several bags of food a day, which she delivered in her Mercedes-Benz.

She does not think she was cruel and considers the charges against her unfair.

"I was there every day," she said. "I fed them and cared for them."

She never counted the cats, which are now being held by Humane Society officials.

"You try not to focus on how big the problem is," she said. "You just try and work day to day to solve the problem."

Free on $5,000 bail, she will be arraigned June 4 in Sonoma County Superior Court.

E-mail Peter Fimrite at
©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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Nearly 90 cats had taken over Terry's home in the Bronx.

Food bills for the animals, most of them descended from a single stray calico she rescued years ago, drove Terry into debt. The hours of cleaning, before and after her hospital job, ground her down.

But the thought of giving up any of her cats -- so much like children to her -- hurt.

"I got so close to the baby cats that I couldn't give any of them away," said Terry, 53, who preferred not to give her last name. "I figured no one else could take care of them like I could."

Researchers call them "hoarders," people who for mysterious reasons collect more animals than they can possibly handle. And they have become a recurring nightmare for neighbors, animal rights advocates and shelter operators.

They often operate unnoticed for years, their collections slowly growing, before catching the attention of animal control officers. The results can be horrific. When officers last week entered a Petaluma home filled with about 200 cats, they found floorboards soaked and warped by urine and feral animals burrowed inside walls. Some of the cats were malnourished or sick. A few had already died.

The home's owner, Marilyn Barletta of San Francisco, was arrested and charged with animal cruelty. But researchers say criminal charges rarely stop hoarding.

"The old adage is, they'll get another cat by the time they're home from court," said Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University.

Although cases pop up regularly throughout the country, hoarding remains little understood. Researchers have identified some psychiatric disorders that may play a part, but they do not apply to every case. Nor is it easy to tell someone who merely loves animals -- a lot of animals -- from a hoarder.

Barletta, for example, told The Chronicle last week that she was trying to find homes for her cats, whereas the typical hoarder cannot let go. Their numbers, Barletta said, simply spiraled out of control.

"I know this sounds bizarre," she said. "But I'm a rational person."

No one knows for certain the scope of the problem overall, in part because it received little serious attention until recently. And its episodic nature -- with just a few cases popping up each year in most areas -- means that local governments don't make it a priority.

A research group spearheaded by Patronek has started to identify patterns among hoarders. Some are the stereotypical "cat ladies" of modern lore -- older, single women who surround themselves with felines.

Some hoarders, however, are men. And not everyone collects cats; many also hoard dogs. One woman kept pigs in her Los Angeles home. A Connecticut woman hoarded beavers she had shipped in from Montana.

Small, quiet and independent, cats may fit the needs of hoarders better than other animals. Most people identified as hoarders go to great lengths to keep their menageries hidden from the outside world. Some are merely embarrassed. Others are convinced that police or animal control officers are out to kill their animals.

That fear often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many animals found in hoarders' homes are so sick or wild that they must be destroyed.

"There's a sense of, 'Why me? I'm just trying to save the animals,' " said Arnie Arluke, a sociologist at Boston's Northeastern University and a member of Patronek's study group. "They often see themselves as the Mother Teresas of the animal world."

Some hoarders show signs of dementia. In others, hoarding seems linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, in which people find themselves endlessly repeating patterns such as collecting the same inanimate objects, over and over.

Most of those who are considered hoarders, however, share two key traits: extreme difficulty letting go of their animals and an inability to recognize the creatures' declining health. Those traits even apply to hoarders who are extremely bright, articulate people, researchers say.
For Terry, it started with one kitten, perhaps four weeks old, that her daughter found near their home.

Terry didn't much like cats before that. But the kitten, and its offspring, were so cute that she found herself smitten.

Several years and generations of cats later, Terry realized she needed help.

She was exhausted caring for the growing, in-bred brood, and embarrassed that she could no longer invite most people to her home.

She took what counselors and researchers call a remarkable and rare step -- she called the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for counseling. After they promised to find homes for the animals, she agreed to let most of them go.

She still has two -- both male, both neutered. She can't quite believe what happened to her, how the cats took over her life.

And yet, when Terry sees strays, the sympathy and sadness for them tugs at her again.

"I still feel this thing," she said. "It's like it's never going to go away. "

Chronicle staff writer Mark Martin contributed to this report.
E-mail David R. Baker at

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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Petaluma shelter takes custody of 196 cats
Owner of house where felines were found forfeits pets by failing to meet deadline to challenge seizure by city
June 3, 2001

Some say it's no contest. Some say violent intent bodyslams ignorant neglect every time. Some say one very small, unbearably cute dead dog is far worse than over 200 long-suffering, pitiable cats. This may or may not be true. Let us compare. You know you want to.

Let us speculate. Let us play devil's advocate. Perhaps you should stop reading now if you are exceedingly sensitive or otherwise emotionally impressionable and do not like to entertain any images of animals that are not fluffy and warm, the kind which are frequently depicted in glitter and beads on oversize knit sweaters. You know who you are.

Some say 27-year-old Andrew Burnett, the road-ragin' SUV-drivin' thuggish dog-tosser (TDT, for short), he of the apparent Bichon Frise enmity and the stolen Pac Bell telephone gear and the apparent knuckle-dragging testosterone problem, is hands-down the more vile and despicable character when compared with Marilyn Barletta, the hapless and wealthy and deeply confused 61-year-old crazy cat lady (CCL), she of the 206 diseased and dying feral felines living in filth, sealed up in their own Petaluma home she bought just for them. He meant harm, she did not. End of story.

Not so fast.

What if all 206 cats (now actually 215, they say, with many more litters on the way) had perished, due to CCL's neglect. Any difference then? Is she still the superior being? Still sympathetic and sad whereas TDT is just mean and detestable because he has no control over his emotions and apparently hates little dogs? Have we the means, the right, the correct ethical tools to properly judge at all? Should we ask the cats?
"Sure she loved us. Sure she fed us. But man, if this is what you biped types call love, I'm thinkin' we all pull a Heaven's Gate and down some poisonous Meow Mix right now." Is that cruel? Is that horrific? It gets difficult to tell in here, what with the urine stench and mummified cat bodies. The mind, it reels. The compassionate heart, it rends, ponders.

Someone did a study. Apparently hoarding cats is an unfortunate, very odd psychological condition suffered by many single women, post middle-age. Go figure. Also, Ms. Barletta said she did not neuter her Petaluma cats "for fear of traumatizing them." She has also admitted that she keeps cats in her own home. No one knows how many. Go ahead, use your imagination. On second thought, don't.

And what of TDT? Sure enough, his solitary moment of blinding imbecilic road rage resulted in the instant death of a tiny puffball of a dog, an action which bespeaks of a larger, more dangerous mentality.
Arguably, his is a brutish and simpleminded approach to the world which of course lends itself to the prevailing lobotomy argument favored by most every animal lover on the planet. It goes something like this: anyone who enacts such violence on an innocent creature, particularly a tiny, sweet domesticated poofball (as opposed to, say, a chicken), should be quickly and cleanly relieved of his cognitive abilities. At the very least. Are we agreed? What, then, to do with CCL? Do her means really justify the ends? Is she just an innocent nut? He's angry but sane, she's innocent but insane? 206 cats, living in utter furball dystopia, with CCL tooling down the freeway in her Mercedes with a bag of food in her trunk every single day for years, utterly oblivious to the pain and suffering of her helpless and quickly breeding charges. What should we do with her? Medication? Counseling? Her misdeed is sad and wrong and upsetting, but ultimately acceptable, because she meant well?

Perhaps it is. Clearly the woman loves cats. Clearly she thinks she was helping them. Clearly she is mildly deranged and only slightly dangerous and is a couple yarnballs short of a sock. But she had good intentions. She is paving the road to hell. Whereas our violence-prone TDT, being an SUV driver, has no need for paved roads. He just races straight down.
Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SF Gate, just like a special magic bunny of love. He also writes the Morning Fix, a deeply skewed daily email column and newsletter. Subscribe at

©2001 SF Gate

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After that gruesome tie-in, the story lost much of its frivolity...

Experts to begin evaluating rescued cats
June 13, 2001

Shelter to begin euthanizing cats
June 15, 2001

Lawyer asks that cats be kept alive
Accused woman had 196 of them
Friday, June 22, 2001

SF woman facing animal cruelty charges in cat hoarding case
Monday, May 20, 2002

Cat collector to get mental health test
July 4, 2003

Petaluma cat woman jailed for missing test
Defendant was ordered to see psychologist
July 17, 2003

Woman in cat case jailed over weekend
July 19, 2003

Cat keeper to be arrested for skipping court
Woman posted bail, promised to go to court Tuesday but didn't
July 23, 2003

Fugitive cat lady caught at S.F. hotel
She was sought in animal-cruelty case

Pamela J. Podger, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

The Petaluma cat lady's luck ran out in the lobby of her preferred San Francisco hotel.

Marilyn Barletta arrived at the San Francisco Hilton late Monday night after four months as a fugitive -- with one cat meowing in her Mercedes station wagon. She had no idea she was about to step into a carefully set trap.

Moments before, the night crew at the Fisherman's Wharf hotel had been alerted to the possible arrival of their guest, a 64-year-old retired San Francisco real estate agent on the run from felony animal cruelty charges for hoarding 200 cats. The hotel workers were to act normally, escort her into a room and quickly call the San Francisco police.

For Barletta, the hotel was the end of a cross-country trip she had started just days earlier in Florida. With her hair still colored brunette but fading back to silver, Barletta asked the Hilton staff to find a suitcase she had left there Oct. 22 on an earlier visit. Barletta likes the Hilton; she had stayed there twice before while on the lam.

Her run began July 22 when she failed to appear at a Sonoma County Superior Court hearing. Barletta's May 2001 arrest followed the discovery of some 200 cats packed in her Petaluma house, a home authorities say Barletta bought just for her cats. Authorities said the conditions inside the house were so bad, some cat remains had become mummified.

She was released on $50,000 bail pending a trial on animal cruelty charges. But since July, she had been avoiding authorities and, until this week, had eluded a private investigator hired by the firm that posted her bail.
After she had been in the hotel for a while Monday night, she went down to her car, apparently to check on the cat, a female tortoiseshell with long hair.

When Barletta returned to the lobby, according to the hotel's night manager, who declined to give his name, she was met by four San Francisco police officers. She surrendered to them without any resistance and was taken to the San Francisco jail. The cat was taken to the San Francisco shelter by animal control officers, who described him as being in good condition.

It all went according to the plan, said private investigator Steve Heffelfinger of Wine Country Investigations in Windsor. He was hired to track down Barletta by the owner of Tony Romelli Bail Bonds in Santa Rosa, who otherwise would have been out Barletta's $50,000 bail if Barletta wasn't returned to custody by Jan. 18.

"More than anything, we're glad that she will get the help that she needs, " Heffelfinger said. "It can be a cruel world out there, and a 64-year-old lady driving across the country in a car that's not top-notch can be tough.''

Barletta had left Florida after being confronted on Oct. 26 by her brother, who had found her living in their mother's empty house in Vero Beach, Fla., according to Heffelfinger. Their mother is receiving care from a nearby convalescent home.

Barletta had made several cross country trips as she eluded authorities, first staying with a friend in Delray Beach and then at her mother's house, Heffelfinger said. She had tried various disguises, coloring her hair first blond and then brunette.

Barletta's attorney, L. Stephen Turer of Santa Rosa, visited his client Tuesday in San Francisco and said he expected her to be transported to Sonoma County later this week.

"Unfortunately, she will end up sitting in custody until this is resolved, " Turer said. "Given the circumstances, the court is unlikely to release her."

Sonoma County Prosecutor Marianna Lebedeff said a plea bargain that had been previously offered to Barletta would limit her to owning just a few cats and, under the law, receive supervised counseling as an alternative to jail.
Turer said that in a conversation he had with Barletta about two weeks ago, she wanted a written plea bargain that allowed her to receive counseling without supervision.

Prosecutors, however, say their deal stands as is.

"There is no wiggle room,'' Lebedeff said. "There is no way to monitor her probation without supervision.''

E-mail Pamela J. Podger at
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle

Cat lady accused of cruelty incompetent to stand trial
Next step for her is hospital treatment for cat-hoarding
Peter Fimrite, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, May 27, 2004

The infamous cat lady -- who hoarded 200 cats in a filthy Petaluma home and, after her arrest, did it again -- was found incompetent Wednesday to stand trial on charges of animal cruelty.

The decision means Marilyn Barletta will be committed to an as-yet-to-be- determined treatment facility so she can overcome her apparently insatiable desire to surround herself with meowing felines.

The decision, by Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Robert Dale, was made after a psychiatrist issued a report indicating that the 64-year-old Barletta's cat-hoarding instincts may not be under her conscious control.

"Based on the report, we agreed that at this time she is not competent to stand trial," said Larry Scoufos, the chief deputy district attorney for Sonoma County. "It goes without saying that it's a sad case for everyone concerned, the cats and the defendant."

Barletta's attorney, Gregor Guy-Smith, urged the court to consider outpatient treatment for his client.
"I don't think society has a mechanism to deal with individuals who present themselves as Ms. Barletta does," which is, he admitted, "different."

It was the third mental health evaluation of the former San Francisco real estate agent since court proceedings began after 200 cats were discovered May 22, 2001, amid mountains of excrement and concentrations of urine so powerful that breathing the air inside her home on Petaluma's Baker Street was considered dangerous. Six dead cats, some cannibalized, were also found.

Barletta's arrest apparently did nothing to curb her odd behavior. She was charged with a misdemeanor for interfering with a crime scene for repeatedly entering her Petaluma home, apparently to bring new cats there.

Her obsession got the best of her again in March 2002 when she was kicked out of a Sausalito office for harboring about 40 cats in a 12-by-20-foot room. She had inadvertently alerted Sausalito police about the situation when she complained to them that her landlord had stolen her beloved pets.

Before that, Barletta admitted keeping dozens of cats in similar conditions in a rented house in the Novato area. The owners of a Sebastopol rental unit also sued Barletta for allowing cats to ruin their property in the early 1970s, but they settled the case out of court.

Barletta was previously found competent to stand trial, but she posted bail and went on the lam, apparently traveling to Florida. The feline-loving fugitive was arrested in October at a San Francisco hotel.
Barletta has insisted that she is a cat rescuer, not a cat hoarder, and has rejected offers to reduce the charges to a misdemeanor in exchange for three years' probation.

Dale ordered Barletta, who is being held in the Sonoma County Jail on $125,000 bail, to return to court June 9 for a decision on where she will be sent for treatment. She will remain in treatment indefinitely until she is deemed once again to be fit to stand trial, Scoufos said.

Meanwhile, Barletta's former home in Petaluma, which she lost in foreclosure, has been renovated, repainted and went on the market last month, with an asking price of $679,000.

mail Peter Fimrite at
Page B - 4

Cat Lady's home remodeled, on market
Petaluma house filled with nearly 200 animals in 2001 has new carpets, fresh smell

June 5, 2004

Three years ago, 210 Baker St. in Petaluma was a house of horrors. Crammed with nearly 200 cats wallowing in their own waste, the home became the centerpiece of an animal cruelty case so horrific it made national news.

But now a young property investor and real estate agent from Oakland is betting the house will be able to outlive its infamy.

Francis Ho, a partner in JWI Investments, bought the neo-Victorian in January and has spent $50,000 to clean and restore it, he said.

"There's nothing wrong with the house," Ho said. "Its a good house. You just have to get past the history of it."

"History" may be a bit of an understatement.

In May 2001, police arrested 64-year old Marilyn Barletta, a former San Francisco real estate agent, after they discovered nearly 200 cats at the house she had bought for them.

Neighbors had long complained to police about the odor coming from the house and on May 22, 2001 Petaluma police and animal control officers met Barletta there. What they found inside was appalling.

"I'll never forget the smell," said Nancee Tavares, Petaluma's animal services manager. "It was literally an inch deep in feces. The carpets squished they were so wet."

Tavares and other officials ended up taking 197 cats out of the house and the adjacent garage and granny unit.At Petlauma's old animal shelter, workers were nearly overwhelmed by the task of dealing with so many cats. Most of the cats ended up having to be euthanized, but not before some 40 kittens were born, Tavares said.

As a felony animal cruelty case against Barletta made its way through the courts, 210 Baker St. sat empty for almost three years. The city filed a $47,947 lien against the property to recover its costs for dealing with the situation. Some hoped the lien would force Barletta to relinquish ownership of the house. But in July 2002, her lawyers paid it.

The house eventually went into foreclosure, and Ho saw a newspaper ad and bought it in January. In the fixer-upper business since he graduated from college in 1995, Ho said he's seen homes in pretty deplorable condition. "This one would top it," he said.

However, he was undeterred by the house's condition or its history. He and his partners assumed a $450,000 mortgage and set a contractor to work in April.

The work included tearing out floors and the bottoms of walls and replacing them, as well as putting in new kitchen and bathroom fixtures and appliances. The house was recarpeted and repainted and its grounds relandscaped.

Furnished and decorated like a model in a new housing development, the house's now-pristine appearance gives no hint of its sordid past. JB Frankin Realty listed it last month for $679,000.

Clifford Kendall, the city's chief building inspector, said he was especially anxious to make sure the restoration was done correctly because he didn't want to face the possibility of any future complaints.

"They did a good job," Kendall said of Ho's workers. "I didn't think they'd be able to get the smell out as well as they did. ... It smells like a new house now."

Ho said he knows the house's history will give some people pause. A woman recently shown the house was enthusiastic until she was told about the cats, he said. But he thinks the house will probably sell during the next two months.

The Barletta case has already reached something approaching cult status, inspiring a Web site titled "Cat Stash Fever," a collection of news stories and photographs about the case.

As for Barletta, she has been jailed since late last year and was found incompetent to stand trial last week. Sonoma County mental health officials are to recommend a treatment program this month.

And Petaluma recently moved to make it more difficult for so-called "cat hoarders" to operate in the future. Last month the City Council approved a revised animal control ordinance that allows only six cats to be kept at any residence.

You can reach Staff Writer Jose L. Sanchez Jr. at 762-7297 or
© The Press Democrat.

'Cat house' remains for sale
Investor plans new efforts to rid former Barletta house of felines' odor
Article published Feb 25, 2005

More than a year after an Oakland real estate investor bought Marilyn Barletta's Petaluma house, the infamous "cat house" still smells bad and remains unsold.

The house at 210 Baker St. became the centerpiece of an animal abuse scandal in 2001 when city officials found it crammed with nearly 200 cats wallowing in their own waste and feeding on other dead felines.

Barletta, a former San Francisco real estate agent, was jailed on animal cruelty charges and subsequently lost ownership of the house.

In January 2004, Francis Ho, a partner in Oakland-based JWI Investments, bought the neo-Victorian and spent $50,000 to clean and restore it.

Parts of walls and floors were removed. The house was outfitted with new cabinets and appliances, repainted and recarpeted. Ho and others thought the bad smell was gone, but some others weren't so sure.

Since he put the house on the market in May, Ho has received only two offers, both significantly under the $679,000 asking price, he said.

Ho has temporarily taken the house off the market and will soon start new efforts to get rid of the remaining smell, he said.

"The odor is still noticeable," Ho said.

He's not sure how much work will need to be done, but said he is prepared to tear out and replace whatever is needed.
After sinking $500,000 into the house, "I can't just let it sit and rot," he said.

When the work is done in three to four weeks, the house will again be listed, but the asking price will drop to $649,000, Ho said.

Neighbors had long complained about the odor coming from the house before police and animal control officers met Barletta there May 22, 2001.

"I'll never forget the smell," said Nancee Tavares, Petaluma's animal services manager. "It was literally an inch deep in feces. The carpets squished they were so wet."

At Petaluma's old animal shelter, workers were nearly overwhelmed by the task of dealing with 197 cats. Most of the animals ended up having to be euthanized, but not before some 40 kittens were born, Tavares said.

As the case against Barletta made its way through the courts, the house went into foreclosure. Ho saw a newspaper ad and bought it.

The Barletta case has reached something approaching cult status, inspiring a Web site titled "Cat Stash Fever," which has a collection of news stories and photographs about the case.

As for Barletta, she was sent to a Santa Rosa psychiatric facility last year after a judge ruled that she was mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Barletta refused treatment, saying she wasn't ill, and doctors said they couldn't restore her competence without cooperation.

She was released in August and charges against her were dropped because she'd already been jailed for more than a year, the maximum sentence had she been convicted.

Throughout the process, Barletta insisted that she rescued the cats and was trying to place them in good homes. She denied mistreating any of the animals.

Steve Turer, Barletta's former attorney, said the woman has an obsessive-compulsive disorder that caused her to collect cats.
(c) The Press Democrat.

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