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.

As early as August 2001, officials were aware that there was a problem when complaints prompted officers to remove 100 cats from the Knueven home. At the time, police did not release Knueven's name. They confirmed the incident yesterday.

Police had allowed Knueven to keep five cats. But neighbors said the feline population continued to grow.

Police said they found dozens of dead cats stuffed in plastic bins. Although some neighbors said the live cats were kept inside the house, one neighbor recalled seeing as many as 20 on the front lawn when police arrived to investigate complaints.

Even with most of the cats removed from the house, a strong odor lingered on the front stoop, where flies buzzed.

"You couldn't walk by the house" without smelling the odor, said one neighbor. "It's just been unbelievable. The whole thing has been awful, just awful."

Officials have said Knueven, her husband and daughter can return to the house when order is restored. She was issued two criminal summonses for failure of owner to care for animals and one summons for failure to dispose of dead animals properly. A civil petition charging her as an unfit owner was also issued.

Officials say the circumstances that lead to hoarding are complex and are often exacerbated by the co-dependency of family members.

"Some are psychological, and some are illness," Yetman said. "But whatever has started this process, the consequences are that they don't make good decisions."

Ruth Knueven, 82, stands near her front door while a Fairfax County official posts a condemnation sign on it. Knueven, her husband and her daughter lived in the Mount Vernon area home with the cats.