updated 5/23/2005 9:51:26 AM ET 2005-05-23T13:51:26

A woman who founded a “no-kill” animal shelter was charged with health code and animal welfare violations after 200 dead cats were discovered rotting in garbage bags in her backyard.

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Marlene Kess, who has built a reputation in Manhattan as a caretaker of homeless and dying cats, had 48 cats inside her house, including 38 in one room, authorities said.

Out back, 200 vermin-infested cat corpses were stuffed into garbage bags and apparently were going to be buried in a large hole that had recently been dug, said Sgt. Joseph Bierman of the state’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The cats were discovered after neighbors complained about the stench.

“Oh my God, it was awful,” said Michael Fowler of the Associated Humane Societies. “The smell was horrible.”

Kess, 56, is the founder and executive director of Kitty-Kind, which runs one of New York City’s few no-kill shelters.

She said the cats died of natural causes. State SPCA spokesman Matt Stanton told The Star-Ledger of Newark an investigation into the death of the cats is “ongoing.”

A longtime resident of Greenwich Village, Kess moved to East Orange in July.

“I take very good care of them,” Kess told reporters Friday. “People who know me know there’s no cruelty involved.”

Kess was cited for health code violations, including keeping an unlawful number of animals, harboring dead animals and causing an environmental hazard with the corpses. The SPCA, which enforces the state’s animal cruelty laws, charged Kess with 38 counts of failing to properly shelter cats.

Authorities are allowing Kess to keep the 48 cats in her home because she promised to separate the sick animals from the healthy ones, Bierman said.

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