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There have been so many burials that the back yard can accept no more corpses. The house looks as if war has been waged within it. And Jack Wright, seated at his kitchen table for a rare moment of repose, has the scarred, shell-shocked look of a man who has spent too many years at the front.

Living with the world's biggest cat collection has not been easy

"It's sucked it all out of me," Mr. Wright said. "It's taken it all, and then some."

At the moment, Mr. Wright said, his house contains 361 cats, still a record, but nowhere close to the 689 he had back in 1994. That was the high-water mark of his collection, a wild, half-remembered time of 18-hour days, mass cat fights and a peculiar celebrity that peaked with an appearance on the Phil Donahue Show and a place in the Guinness Book of Records.

For Mr. Wright, it has been a long, strange ride to where he is today, a tired man of 62 trying to come up with yet another day's worth of cat food and litter. He has missed several mortgage payments and he's $2,500 behind on his utility bill.

"What will end up happening, I don't know," he said. "I don't know whether I'll die first, or them. But as long as I can care for them, I will."

As he speaks, a cat begins climbing up his leg, using its claws like a telephone lineman's spikes. Another sits on his shoulders, plucking fur from its hindquarters. Approximately 20 more cats lie on the table before him, like lions sunning on a rock. Countless more peer from the cupboards and the window ledges.

Mr. Wright sweeps a yellowing strand of grey hair from his face and reflects on the past three decades with his cats.

"Let's put it this way," he said, "I never set out to have this many cats. Who would?"

Until 1970, he lived an average existence, working as a house painter in Kingston, where he was born and raised. He married Donna Belwa, a waitress at a local restaurant. What would ultimately become the world's biggest cat collection began with Midnight, a black, long-haired "Heinz 57" that Donna owned before they were married.

Mr. Wright and his wife were both animal lovers, so when Midnight had kittens, there was no discussion about giving them away. The Wrights also began to take in the occasional stray. Before long, their home became known within local cat circles as the place to take unwanted animals possibly facing euthanization at the SPCA.

Cats began to turn up on their doorstep, some in cages, some not. Two were left tied to the picnic table with a length of twine. If an abandoned cat was discovered in a tree, Mr. Wright went with a ladder. Before long, the Wrights hit the 100-cat mark and there was no turning back. By the early 1990s, there were more than 400, and caring for the cats had become an all-consuming task, an Aegean-stables nightmare of cleaning, feeding and coming up with the money to pay for it all.

At its peak, the cost of maintaining the cats ran to more than $100,000 a year. The Wrights paid for much of it out of their own pockets. The rest came through donations made by people who had heard about them through print or television. Things started to go downhill in the mid-1990s.

Mr. Wright's painting business was doing poorly. Their fame had begun to fade, along with the donations. It was harder and harder to come up with the money for each day's food and litter. Jack and Donna bickered constantly, and their health was slipping. In 1998, suffering from degenerative discs and depression, with her marriage on the rocks, Donna moved out.

"She couldn't take it any more," Mr. Wright said. "Not many people could."

During their marriage, Mr. Wright and his wife never took a vacation or bought new furniture or treated themselves to new clothes. Instead, they shopped at the Salvation Army, knowing that whatever they bought would soon be clawed to shreds anyway. They never went to movies, ate in restaurants or took up hobbies. Their lives were dedicated to the all-consuming matter of the cats.

Caring for the cats was, and remains, virtually a full-time job.

"You start cleaning at one end of the house, and by the time you reach the other end it's time to start all over again," Mr. Wright said, trying to convey the scale of the task. "People ask what it's like, and you can't really tell them. You can try, but you'd have to live it to know."

As a matter of policy, Mr. Wright never gives cats away, or puts them to sleep.

"People bring their cats here because they know that they're not going to get killed. They know that when a cat arrives here, it's safe. It's here until it's time for that cat to pass on."

Thousands of cats have died at the Wright home. For years, Mr. Wright and his wife used their back yard as a cat cemetery, but the ground was finally so full of graves that it became impossible to dig. The corpses of deceased cats are now passed on to the SPCA for disposal.

As you might expect, not everyone has been happy about the couple's cat collection. In the 1980s, a number of neighbours waged a long political campaign to get the cats evicted. Among their opponents was Mr. Wright's own aunt. In 1992, the city passed a bylaw making it illegal to keep more than five cats, but gave the Wrights a grandfather exception.

"As far as the Humane Society is concerned the issue is whether the animals are properly cared for -- healthy and not in any distress," a Kingston Humane Society representative said. "As far as we know, they are healthy."

According to the Ontario SPCA Web site, just 10 per cent of abandoned cats are adopted by new families compared with about 50 per cent in the case of dogs. In 1999, the 24 branches of the Ontario SPCA became home to more than 15,000 cats.

Mr. Wright finds it difficult to explain exactly why he and his wife took on their mission, except to say that they love animals.

"I see a lot of animals abused and neglected," he said. "If people took care of their animals, we never would have had to do this,"

Mr. Wright estimates that as many as 100,000 cats are abandoned each year in Canada. He has served as a kind of Catcher in the Rye, rescuing at least some of those who have fallen off the edge. In recent years he has been trying to reduce his cat population through attrition. Although the numbers are down sharply, the remaining cats still constitute a staggering collection.

Mr. Wright's home is a world unto itself. At the threshold, a visitor is greeted by a moving sea of cats and the first, overpowering gust of the home's air, which is thick with the competing aromas of cat urine, Pine-Sol cleanser and the odour-fighter Swish-60.

The house is adapted to the unique task of caring for several hundred cats. The floors are covered with sheets of linoleum that wrap part way up the walls. There are six industrial-size litter boxes, which are changed five times a day. The television is covered with a sheet of Plexiglas to protect it from claws. The door frames are changed at least once a year -- the cats regularly claw them down to the consistency of driftwood.

Like the sacred cows of India, the cats go wherever they choose, secure in the knowledge that they occupy a sacrosanct social niche. There are cats on the floors, window ledges, tables, sofas, washer, dryer and stove. A number occupy the linen closet. There are usually several in the bathtub, except when it is filled with water.

The single most popular spot is Mr. Wright's bed, which is often covered with 50 cats or more. He has occasionally woken in the night and found himself unable to move, trapped beneath the blankets by the accumulated weight of the cats.

Eating is also a difficult task. Mr. Wright has fallen into the habit of making sandwiches, which he consumes by holding them close to his chest, keeping one hand free to push away cats.

Mr. Wright is philosophical about the complex logistics imposed by the cats. "When you live with cats, they're the boss," he said. "You can complain about it, but that's just the way it is."