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Strong Odors Expose N.Va. House's Secret

Ruth Knueven, 82, stands near her front door on Ludgate Drive while a Fairfax County official posts a condemnation sign on it. Knueven, her husband and her daughter lived in the Mount Vernon area home along with the cats. Two weeks ago, police found 88 cats in a Falls Church home.
Ruth Knueven, 82, stands near her front door on Ludgate Drive while a Fairfax County official posts a condemnation sign on it. Knueven, her husband and her daughter lived in the Mount Vernon area home along with the cats. Two weeks ago, police found 88 cats in a Falls Church home. (By Jahi Chikwendiu -- The Washington Post)

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By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

From the outside, Ruth Knueven's Mount Vernon home has real charm: a verdant lawn, manicured hedges, flowers blossoming from fresh mulch beds and, near the front door, a garden ornament depicting two playful cats.

But police said that what lurked inside Knueven's two-story home was hardly so delightful. Hidden behind that garden ornament was a house bursting with real cats.

Animal control officers removed 273 creatures -- 86 of them dead -- after neighbors complained vehemently of odors Friday. Cats were still being plucked from the house yesterday, extracted from the walls and from deep within the brick chimney. Traps were set.

"I don't know how they got in there," Fairfax County police officer Richard Henry said of the hidden cats.

Before leaving, officials slapped a bright-orange sticker on the front door, condemning the dwelling on Ludgate Drive that they said was overflowing with feline feces and urine. Knueven, 82, and her husband and daughter were ordered to leave.

Last night, police said, Knueven returned to the house and ripped down the condemnation order. Animal-control officers found her inside trying to smuggle an additional 30 cats out of the home, bringing the total last night to 303. The animals were confiscated, and more traps were set.

Police said the cat cache wasn't so isolated. Two weeks ago, police were called to the Falls Church home of Jane Baldinger, 58. They removed 88 cats -- 29 of them dead -- and a dog.

Officials condemned that home, too, which they said was overrun with animal waste that filled a toilet and bathtub and otherwise destroyed the plumbing. Baldinger was given an unfit owner petition and a summons for failure of an owner to care for animals.

"These people believe that they're doing what is best for the animals," said John Yetman, Fairfax County environmental health specialist and chairman of the county's Hoarding Task Force. "Unfortunately, they're not. As a result, their own homes become severely deteriorated and unhealthy."

Police said that nearly all the animals collected from the two homes were feral, were unfit for adoption at shelters and will be destroyed.

Residents in Knueven's neighborhood, an enclave of large homes that back up to George Washington's Mount Vernon plantation, were nearly united in their disgust, portraying their neighbor as a woman who was obsessed with cats.

They said that Knueven spent years taking in strays, which multiplied inside her home and caused years of headaches for neighbors. They say she tried, unsuccessfully, to mask the odor with incense, burning it in her back yard.


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