Dressed in the county jail''s standard-issue aqua jumpsuit, Richard Partridge shuffles into the visiting area. His wrist is adorned by a plastic bracelet bearing his photo and cell number. His hair hangs down with his beard, long and scraggly, and his skin looks dry and pocked under the fluorescent lights. His eyes are constantly darting around, now beady, now open wide, now misty, as he tells his story.

Last September, investigators from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, acting on a tip, found 58 cats--some dehydrated, some starving and some suffering from untreated illnesses and injuries--in Partridge''s North County house, barn and rented storage areas. Along with them were the decomposed remains of an estimated 200 cats.

Partridge was arrested, charged and eventually convicted of two felony counts of animal cruelty and four misdemeanor counts of failure to provide proper and veterinary care to an animal. After a late January trial, complete with grisly photos and descriptions of unhealthy felines, Partridge was sentenced to 270 days in the county jail. With good behavior, he''ll probably end up being there for 160 days.

According to the SPCA, Partridge is an extreme example of an animal hoarder. Rob Cole, one of the investigators who discovered the barn, says that Partridge is in "deep denial."

"He is reclusive, deceptive, and was not interested in surrendering the cats, even if it meant the best care possible," says Cole. "His interest in control and possession of the cats seems more evident than anything typical of good or even minimal care."

But to Partridge, the proceedings have been appallingly unfair.

"This is the result of a vendetta by the SPCA," he says, fidgeting with his jail ID bracelet. "This whole hoarding thing is a lie that''s being perpetuated. I can''t imagine anybody going through all this."

Partridge, who says he''s owned cats for over 30 years, claims that if the strays he picked up had been delivered to the SPCA, they would have been euthanized en masse. His worst fears came true when the SPCA did put to sleep 13 of the 58 cats they seized. Six months later, Partridge still can''t contain his emotions.

"Money can''t buy back those lives," he says, fighting tears. "I felt like I was in Schindler''s List, watching my kids get sent off to be gassed, and I couldn''t do anything about it but just try to live on another day."

Humane Associations

Richard Warren Partridge tells his own life story, just as one might expect, very matter-of-factly.

He was born in 1946 and grew up in Chicago. He joined the Air Force at age 20 and served for three years, rising to the rank of sergeant while stationed in England during the Vietnam War.

In the 1970s, he moved to California and shared a place with a former Air Force roommate. He started attending college in San Jose before transferring to San Luis Obispo. Partridge spent his days attending classes and his nights as a salesman, eventually quitting school as sales became more and more profitable. It was during his stint as a salesman that Partridge acquired his first cat.

"I was going door-to-door selling vacuum cleaners," he says, "when I found this cat on the front step of a house. The lady who lived there said it wasn''t hers, so I named him ''Dummy'' and adopted him."

His collection grew, slowly at first but then by leaps and bounds as he began taking in strays off the street. He knew all his cats by name and kept a sheet with all of their names so he wouldn''t forget any.

Partridge eventually moved back to San Jose and there began to cultivate a habit that he would continue until his arrest.

"I used to go with a lady and feed strays in San Jose," he says. "We went to 14 different locations, feeding cats at each one.

"There''s a whole underground that does this," he explains nervously, as if leery of disclosing this information to the uninitiated. "There are up to 14 or so strays at the R&O [Cocktail Lounge] in Prunedale, another three or four at the Prunedale Shopping Center, and 30 to 40 at McDonald''s in Seaside."

But in addition to feeding the feral cats scattered about the cities where he lived, Partridge was also bringing cats home. Neighbors and friends brought some to him, but most of his cats were strays picked up along the streets.

"I had cats all this time," he says. "Usually between 25 and 70 of them. I took in a lot of strays from the side of the road. Quite a few were kittens that wouldn''t have made it one or two days on their own."

Partridge says that the cats he took in would have been euthanized if they''d been brought to the SPCA or similar animal shelters.

"We used to call them the Society for Putting Cats Asleep," he says angrily. "The cats people brought to me have problems. These are ones that the SPCA will put to sleep because they''re not ''perfect.''"

Fitting the Profile

Dr. Gary Patronek, a professor at Tufts University, is the closest thing you''ll find to an expert on animal hoarding. He published a 1999 article in the journal Public Health Reports describing hoarders according to a number of characteristics. Partridge fits the bill on most counts.

Animal hoarding, Patronek writes, occurs in nearly every community in the U.S. Hoarding can be distinguished from merely owning a large number of animals by the owner''s ability to provide basic and veterinary care.

According to Patronek, the two most common ways of collecting animals are by collecting strays and by unplanned breeding. By Partridge''s own admission, he both picked up strays from the street and accepted animals brought by other people. Photos taken by the SPCA of cats at the Prunedale site include numerous shots of kittens with older cats, presumably the mothers. The photos seem to confirm that the cats were breeding.

"Partridge never had his cats spayed or neutered," says SPCA agent Cole. "He told us he''d never thought about it. That''s how the problem becomes multiplied."

Partridge also resembles Patronek''s portrait of an animal hoarder in other ways, though his gender makes him a little unusual. The "average" hoarder is a female over 40 who lives alone. She collects mostly cats, and often inflicts damage upon her residence as a result of her collection. Even if caught or evicted, she''s likely do it again.

One woman cited in Patronek''s article reportedly bought a new home every few years, as sanitary conditions in each successive house made it uninhabitable. This seems to have been what Partridge did, though he was renting, as he drifted down from San Jose to Hollister to Prunedale.

Follow the Yellow-Stained Floors

By the mid-''90s, Partridge says, he had immersed himself in and subsequently quit the health spa business. After the failure of several investments, he decided to try riding the crest of the Internet wave.

His company, Avatar Projects, developed an adult Web site that, depending on the week one views it, features blatant nudity or more discreet "trading cards" of some of "the world''s most beautiful women." Besides asking viewers to vote for their favorite ladies, the site also includes the coy suggestion: "We look forward to having you on board with us and making it profitable for all of us." There is no explanation as to how this will work.

But Avatar Projects did not earn Partridge financial security, and he was evicted not once but at least three times in the last three years, each time for failure to pay rent. All three homes--two in Hollister and the one in Prunedale--were trashed from the sheer number of cats Partridge was keeping, despite lease agreements that stipulated he was not to have pets in the houses. None of the owners even knew the houses had been damaged until they came to clean up. By the time he left one of the Hollister houses, damage from the cats had rendered it uninhabitable.

Frank Leal, who now owns the Hollister house, says he is going to donate it to the local fire department to be burned for practice rather than try to renovate it.

"It''s past the point of repair," he says. "I won''t even attempt to repair it. I''d rather burn it and start from scratch."

The two-story house, surrounded by acres of vineyards, looks nice from the outside, but after nearly a year of Partridge living there, the inside has the unmistakable odor of a dirty pet store. The stripped plywood floors bear urine stains, not just in spots, but everywhere. Dirt and feces ring the rooms along the bottoms of the walls. In the corner, a ventilation screen has rusted out from cat urine.

"The smell is in the drywall, in the wood, in the house," says Leal. "A 3,200-square-foot home, ruined."

The devastation looks strangely familiar. Exactly like photographs taken at the devastated Prunedale house.

Worst Case Scenario

Rob Cole has seen three cases of animal hoarding in his two years as an SPCA investigator.

"This if by far the worst case I''ve ever come across," he says, "and this is the worst case that we [Monterey County SPCA] know of."

Indeed, the sheer number of animals involved in the Partridge case outranks anything in Patronek''s article. The only thing that even comes close is a case from Westmoreland, Penn., in which a woman was convicted of 12 counts of animal cruelty (one count for each species) when police found over 200 starving farm animals on her property.

Cole and his partner, Trae Duininck, were first tipped off in September by a truck driver transporting Partridge''s belongings out of the Prunedale house on Crazy Horse Canyon Road from which he''d just been evicted for failure to pay rent.

"The storage driver was very concerned about what he''d seen at the house," says Cole, "both about the number of cats and the cats that looked sick."

Cole investigated the scene. Citing "immediate health and safety concerns," he seized the cats he saw, leaving behind a notice. The next day, Cole and Duininck returned and met Partridge for the first time.

"We ended up seizing 20 cats from that property," says Cole, "and after speaking to Mr. Partridge, we discovered that he had been taking cats from that house and hiding them somewhere else."

Partridge wouldn''t tell them where.

The next break came when a county citizen reported strange goings-on at a barn on Castroville Boulevard. By this time Partridge was living in a car parked at the barn. The SPCA agents prepared a warrant and proceeded to search the barn. Upon entering the barn, Cole remembers, he reeled from the smell.

"There was a strong, horrible smell inside the barn in particular," he recalls. "In the vehicle he lived in and another vehicle with dead cats, but particularly in the barn."

Once the agents overcame the odor and started to look around the barn and nearby cars, a shocking scene confronted them. Along with 38 living, but sick and starving, cats were the decomposing bodies of more than 100 dead felines. Scattered among the animals and general clutter of cardboard boxes were litterboxes overflowing with feces and "what appeared to be vomit," says Cole. Some of the bodies were decapitated or mutilated, making an exact count difficult. Even worse, he says, the bodies were in various states of decomposition, which furthered the smell and the implications that this had been going on for a while.

"Keeping dead animals is part of the hoarder pathology," explains Cole. "Their interest is in having animals, whether they''re alive or dead. It''s not surprising to find dead animals--it''s consistent with animal hoarding."

The cats that were living were not having an easy time of it. Many were starving and dehydrated, and some had severe eye ulcerations. Cole produces a photograph of an older cat, presumably a mother, with several tiny kittens. Both of the mother''s eyes have been virtually eaten out of their sockets by infection. The kittens are just starting to have problems. Severe scarring seems to indicate that one black kitten has already lost the use of its left eye.

In the midst of the search and seizure, Partridge arrived on the scene. He says that he offered to help the agents remove the cats "without traumatizing them," but that they refused. Partridge told them that he wasn''t abandoning the animals, that he was feeding and taking care of them.

"There were bowls for food and water there," he says. "They might have been empty, but it showed I was feeding them."

Soon after, Cole and Duinink found another 100 carcasses at a Watsonville storage area rented out by Partridge. The SPCA pressed charges, which led to a hearing. Investigators argued that Partridge was not taking proper care of the cats.

"They claimed the cats had fleas," says Partridge. "They said there were respiratory problems. They made it sound like the cats were ready to croak--which they weren''t."

The SPCA insisted that the presence of the dead cats indicated otherwise and claimed that the lack of veterinary care and regular food and water had caused the deaths. Partridge also spent 17 days in jail before making bail. By the time the whole ordeal was over, he received a court order to pay the SPCA just over $33,000 for the care of the cats.

Hoarder in the Court

Meanwhile, the SPCA had its hands full with all the seized cats. Fifty-eight cats are a lot for an animal shelter, especially when they come in all at once, and many with medical problems. Thirteen of the cats were euthanized due to extremely poor health or behavioral problems. According to the SPCA, the cats were just too far gone to be rescued. Several have already found homes, and the rest are waiting to be adopted.

The trial took place in late January. Unable to afford a pricey attorney, Partridge was assigned a public defender to represent him on two felony charges of animal cruelty and four misdemeanors.

Six days'' worth of evidence was presented, including testimony from a cleaning lady who had stripped the Prunedale house of all carpets and wall hangings, only to find the cat smell was as strong as ever. The evidence from the two houses in Hollister was not presented, as the information from the Prunedale sites alone was "overwhelming," according to Deputy District Attorney Robert Burlison, who prosecuted the case.

By the closing statements, Partridge saw the writing on the wall.

"I was already upset with the job the public defender did," he says. "When the district attorney did his summary at the end, I almost believed I was guilty myself."

After convicting him, the judge gave Partridge 270 days in prison, a lengthy term for animal cruelty.

"I think the message is clear," says Burlison. "If you have animals, you need to care for them."

Gary Tiscornia, the executive director for the Monterey County SPCA, was pleased with the sentence.

"Even active cruelty doesn''t usually get much time," he says. "We were pleased he actually got sentenced to jail time. With passive cruelty like this you almost never see that."

Partridge vehemently disagrees with the sentence.

"It was an unfair trial," he says adamantly. "My attorney did a less than adequate job. The DA made up a fantasy story. I''m not vicious. I''m not a hoarder. I was going to bury the carcasses when I got my next house.

"The SPCA took advantage of me at a weak time, when I was in between homes. In the process of ''saving'' those cats, they destroyed my life."

Partridge says he plans on suing the SPCA and his public defender once he is released from prison. He says he is studying law and will represent himself if need be.

For now though, Partridge says he takes jail life one day at a time.

"I''m coping," he says. "It''s not the life I want to be living. I''m a workaholic--this sedentary life is killing me. I just go from breakfast to lunch to dinner. I read a lot."

And with that, he hangs up the phone and walks back into the fluorescent depths of the county jail.

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