05/30/2012 12:05 pm ET

Lorraine Smith's 36 Decaying Cat Bodies May Have Set Off Fire Alarm, Official Says

Officials responding to a 2 a.m. fire alarm at a home in Bradley Beach, NJ, were horrified to find the house filled with the bodies of 36 dead cats.

The 3-story home belongs to Lorraine R. Smith, a 65-year-old retired schoolteacher, according to the Asbury Park Press. Smith, however, had moved out nearly a year previously to care for her elderly mother. Victor Amato, chief of the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), estimated that the cats had been "fending for themselves" for the entire year.

The scene inside Smith's house on Sunday was "just a nightmare," Amato said, "It looked like a lot of the animals [had been] cannibalizing one another."

Smith faces animal cruelty charges.

The cats' bodies were lying in a foot of their own waste. Even while wearing Hazmat suits, the Daily Mail reported, SPCA members could only spend 15 minutes at a time inside the house due to the overwhelming smell.

Police Chief Leonard Guida told the Village Voice that the strong odor caused by the decaying bodies may be what set off the fire alarm, though he pointed out it also may have been triggered by condensation, dust, or other airborne particles.

One next-door neighbor told the APP that he and other neighbors had complained to the town on several occasions about odors coming from the house. On one occasion, he said, he even phoned the Monmouth County Board of Health when he noticed hundreds of large flies in one of the windows. Chief Amato noted that house will likely be condemned.

Smith faces at least 36 counts of animal cruelty, as well as an estimated fine of $3,600. She is expected to appear in court next month.