OAKLAND -- About a decade ago, Jan Van Dusen began a mission to care for feral cats and except for an occasional dispute with other volunteer cat rescuers, the attorney's methods of caring for a growing cat population were not questioned.
Van Dusen, who is in her 60s, even made national headlines, and was cheered by many cat rescue volunteers, when she defeated the Internal Revenue Service in a dispute over whether she could deduct pet supplies from her tax bill.
But sometime in 2010 after Van Dusen lost her job, a prosecutor said Thursday, she lost control of the cat colony she created in her West Oakland home.
The condition of her home at 1501 Magnolia St., and that of many of the cats she was supposed to care for, resulted in an October 2011 raid that lead to a felony animal cruelty charge and a jury trial that ended Thursday.
If found guilty, Van Dusen could be sent to prison for up to three years.
Van Dusen's attorney Dwana Bain has argued that her client is being prosecuted because of disagreements she has had with Oakland Animal Services. Bain said the conditions in Van Dusen's house were not as bad as photos illustrating severe filth depict.
But a prosecutor argued otherwise as he told a jury that Van Dusen should be found guilty of felony animal cruelty.
Van Dusen's desire to help feral cats turned into an unhealthy obsession that resulted in almost 30 cats dying as she failed to properly care for the more than 100 felines she had "trapped" in her 1,200 square foot home, deputy district attorney Timothy Burr said.
Pictures of her house taken by animal control officers during the raid on Oct. 27, 2011, and pictures taken by a former friend a couple of days before the raid, showed a scene that made jurors cringe as Burr flashed them on a screen.
There was dried feces at least three inches high along floorboards in the living room. Litter boxes were filled with feces and urine. Some cages, which were stacked four-high on top of each other, contained six cats and pools of urine that were dripping from the cage floors.
A white futon on the living room appeared brown from urine and cat diarrhea stains as did the sheets on a bed in a bedroom. Wooden floors were warped from urine and covered in feces. And the stench, witnesses testified, made eyes tear and throats burn.
Even worse, Burr and witnesses said, animal control officers found two dying cats wrapped in towels on the kitchen stove and 11 dead cats in Van Dusen's freezer and refrigerator. The dead cats were individually wrapped in white plastic garbage bags and shoved in the freezer and fridge among food items.
Van Dusen had testified earlier in the trial that she was providing hospice to the dying cats and placed them on the stove because that was their favorite place to sleep.
Van Dusen also said she place the dead cats in the freezer because she did not have the money needed to cremate them but said she treated them as society treats dead human beings by cleaning them and they putting them in plastic bags in the freezer.
"That's where the vet stores them, that's where they have to be," Van Dusen said. "I put them in the freezer and then they would go to the vet later."
Of the cats that did not die, many suffered from various diseases, malnutrition and dehydration, Burr said. Seven cats had to be euthanized immediately and another 11 were put to sleep after treatments to cure them did not work.
"You look at these photos and there is a reaction," Burr said. "This is not a proper way to shelter animals. You can see cats living in their own filth. It's disgusting."
Burr said that it did not matter if Van Dusen's intent was to help the cats because her actions caused them to suffer.
In an often tearful response, Van Dusen's attorney said her client was being unfairly targeted and questioned the accuracy of photographs and a video recorded when animal control officers issued a search warrant on Van Dusen's home.
Bain said Van Dusen sheltered cats that people did not want and said the cats that were sick did not become ill because of Van Dusen's care but had always been ill.
"Are we really going to have the government tell us how to (care) for our own cats," Bain said. "Do you think she just went crazy and said, 'I don't care about my cats no more?'
"She didn't cause these cats to get sick, God did."