Four cats (and one human) lose battle for £1m property

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Coco the cat, a plump, glossy black creature of advancing years, stretched out in the hallway at number 3 Elm Park Gardens in Barnes, south-west London, yesterday afternoon, exuding the kind of proprietorial self satisfaction that comes from having lived all your life in the same house.

As befits a dignified elder citizen, she seemed to be unaware of, or at least showing cat-like indifference to, the bitter argument raging around her future and that of the house she considers her home.

The organisation that has been fighting to remove her from her home is, oddly enough, Cats Protection, an animal charity. It was bequeathed the house by the previous owner, Helen Follett, but it now wants to sell the five-bedroom Victorian property, worth around £1m, to swell its funds, and promises to find "loving homes" for Coco and house's three other cats - Smokey, Tubby and Sleepy.

However, the current human occupant of the house, Ian Simpson, 43, an unemployed general maintenance man, argues that, because the cats are all elderly, it would be unnecessarily traumatic for them to move to unfamiliar surroundings. Nature, he says, should be allowed to take its course and the charity should only be able to take possession after the demise of the cats. In response, the charity claims that Mr Simpson wants compensation for himself.

Yesterday, a judge at Wandsworth County Court accepted Cats Protection's argument that Mr Simpson was trespassing on their property and ordered his immediate eviction.

The dispute over the property dates back to 1996, when Lady Follett died. She had been living there for many years with her former neighbour and companion, George Rapkins, a retired inventor. Both were animal lovers, active in local wildlife groups and involved in creating the London Wetlands Centre in Barnes. They often took in injured or abandoned animals, some of whom are buried in the garden.

Lady Follett left the house to Cats Protection, asking that it be turned into a cat sanctuary, but also stipulating that Mr Rapkins should be allowed to continue living there, free of charge, and to be able to look after her cats. Planning permission to turn the property into a sanctuary was turned down, but the charity allowed Mr Rapkins to remain there.

Mr Simpson, who had known the couple for many years, and had worked for them as a handyman, claims that, last autumn, along with another man, he began helping Mr Rapkins, who was by now old and infirm, doing his shopping and cooking and looking after the resident cats. He eventually moved into the house because the elderly man needed round-the-clock care. After Mr Rapkins died in January, aged 90 - leaving around £1m to the RSPCA - Mr Simpson was asked by Cats Protection to move out so the property could be sold.

Mr Simpson feels that he and the cats are being unjustly treated and accuses the charity of reneging on an agreement to allow the cats to live there after Mr Rapkins 's death.

For its part, the charity says it simply wants to realise its bequest. It denies all knowledge of an agreement to let the cats stay and promises they will be well looked after, although it points out that, as far as it can establish, only Coco belonged to Lady Follett, the others being more recent arrivals. "We will take care of all resident cats and ensure that loving homes are found for them as soon as possible," said a spokeswoman.