On Monday evening, Jan Bakonyi left her house in Wayne, N.J., to run some errands. She returned an hour later to find her home engulfed in flames and began a frantic effort to save the lives of the dozens of cats inside.
Neighborhood resident Matt Hanrahan was driving home from the grocery store around 8:45 p.m. when he noticed smoke coming out of Bakonyi’s house, so he called 911.
Bakonyi returned as Hanrahan pulled up, according to police Capt. James Clarke.
“Hey, is anybody in the house?” Hanrahan said he asked Bakonyi.
A panicked look came across Bakonyis face, he said, as she told him dozens of cats were inside.
“We pushed the (front) door open as wide as we could and the smoke just poured out,” Hanrahan said.
Hanrahan said he stood outside the front door for about 10 minutes while Bakonyi threw the cats at him before they had to pull back because of the smoke.
She kept on saying My babies, my babies. I said, Oh, my God. I tried to get the door in, but there was too much crap in there, Hanrahan said. I couldnt see anything in there. It was black, it was smoke. We were just feeling.
Bakonyi and Hanrahan managed to rescue four cats, who were rushed to the Animal Care Center of North Jersey, a clinic owned by veterinarian Michael Morris.
When they came in, they were all pretty cold, dehydrated and smelled like smoke, but they warmed up pretty fast, Morris said.
The veterinarian was concerned, however, that the cats could have suffered from smoke inhalation, pneumonia or inflammation of the lungs. He said he would know more about their condition today.
Although many readers commenting on the story in The Record have condemned Bakonyi as a hoarder, shewas not a person who collected animals, but someone who had dedicated herself to others and helped arrange low cost spay-and-neuter services, said Jessica Gotthold, the founder ofThe National Foundation for Animal Rescue. She said Bakonyi sheltered animals in her home that were waiting to be adopted.
Gotthold said she met Bakonyi four years ago while holding adoption events at a Petco store.
For the last few years, she has also helped to trap and neuter hundreds of feral and stray cats throughout northern New Jersey. Morris said Bakonyi is known in the area as “Trapper Jan.”
Fire Inspector Scott Kooreman said Bakonyi had lived in the house for about 40 years and was dedicated to her work with felines.
The animals were her life, it was her family, Kooreman said. Shes very distraught.
Kooreman and an animal control officer returned to the house on Tuesday morning and removed a total of 60 dead cats. They spent an hour listening for cats and left out some food in case any survived and were hiding inside.
Bakonyi’s troubles may not end with the destruction of her home and the death of most of the cats in her care, though.
A Wayne township ordinance says that no person, family, firm or corporation shall keep more than five licensed pets in any one place within Wayne except by official provision. The township clerks office said Bakonyi did not have a shelter license, and information was not available on whether the cats had been licensed.The township is in the process of deciding whether Bakonyi should face charges for violating the ordinance.
Fines for violating township ordinances range from $50 to $2,000, said Health Officer Mary Ann Orapello. She said the townships investigation is continuing. It might be difficult to pursue charges, however, because the cats are no longer in the home.
We have to figure out what to do, Orapello said. Its a tragedy.
ThePassaic County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is also conducting an investigation, said SPCA agent Alan Purcell. However, he said it was too soon to comment on whether the organization would pursue any charges of its own.
Bakonyi did not have a license to run a shelter or a kennel, said Orapello, who added that the township had not received prior complaints about the womans Piermont Terrace home.
Michael Johnson, who lived on the other side of the house, said, It wasnt like [the cats] were running wild. She was just a concerned person trying to find them homes.”
Gotthold said caring for that many cats required all Bakonyis energy. “It really doesnt end,” she said. “Its a labor of love. You get up early and you start scooping. Its kind of an unending process.”
Bakonyi is staying with a friend in the neighborhood, police said. She refused to talk to reporters.