By Katie Marsico
Now that my husband and I share our two-bedroom condo with two children, our pet population tallies in at a trio of dogs, a pair of hamsters, and one Siamese fighting fish. There was an era, however—ah, the good old days—when we fostered a much larger furry menagerie. During college, when time and resources were more readily available, we set aside our old office as the “guinea pig apartment.” At one point, we took care of 13 pigs, as well as a handful of other critters that included everything from finches to domestic rats. Sure, the vet bills were onerous, and the weekly clean-up was, well, let’s say fairly messy, involved, and generally entailed at least one can of air freshener. But in the end we met the challenges. We ultimately did not bite off more than we could chew, given the amount of funds available and time required at that juncture in our lives.
Yet there are some individuals who find themselves in more overwhelming circumstances. For these men and women, commonly referred to by psychologists and law enforcement officials as hoarders, animals become an addiction, with both pets and people suffering in the process.
Celeste Killeen is a writer, investigative journalist, and the coauthor of Inside Animal Hoarding, due out in bookstores in 2008. As she explains, hoarding—often called collecting—is not merely about numbers. “When there are more animals than the [person] can care for is when problems arise,” Killeen says. “Keeping 100 dogs is fine if you have the necessary space, finances, time, and energy to provide food, water, veterinary care, a sanitary environment, and regular interaction. It’s my opinion that people cross the line when they indulge their own emotional needs for ego gratification, power, control, the desire to be depended on, or the thrill of rescuing, at the expense of the pets in question.”
Sadly, the majority of hoarders are unable to perceive their own inability to act as responsible guardians. Several theories exist as to the root causes of hoarding, including obsessive-compulsive, delusional, and attachment disorders. Most hoarders insist they love their animals and are extremely reluctant to accept assistance from other people in caring for the pets. From a hoarder’s perspective, she is the only one who can adequately see to her pets’ needs. In addition, hoarders typically harbor an intense fear that allowing anyone else into their lives will result in their animals being taken away or euthanized.
As Allison Cardona notes, the result is a dangerous and sometimes even deadly scenario for both people and pets. Cardona is the director of volunteer programs and special projects at the ASPCA in New York and has witnessed numerous hoarding situations. “What may begin as a refuge for a handful of homeless animals can over time become a highly unsanitary environment where hundreds of dogs and cats live without food, water, exercise, and veterinary care—including sterilization,” she says. “These cases often come to light only when circumstances have deteriorated to the point that the animals are suffering severe neglect or have died from untreated ailments or starvation.”
In keeping with their disorder, hoarders are typically reclusive and make numerous attempts to conceal their living conditions. While most communities place restrictions on the number of animals residents can keep, hoarders often don’t obtain licenses and are intentionally secretive about their pet population. Consequently, law enforcement authorities or animal control officers are usually called in when the problem becomes so severe that neighbors, family, or friends report a pungent odor emanating from the hoarder’s house or apartment. Such smells are generally related either to animal waste or the decaying flesh of deceased pets. Once officials stage an intervention or raid a home, what they find inside is frequently horrifying.
Killeen cites an especially disturbing case in which a single hoarder kept 552 dogs. “When law enforcement discovered what was going on,” she recounts, “they encountered canines suffering from varying degrees of emaciation, dehydration, parasites, upper-respiratory ailments, tooth decay, deformities common to inbreeding, and behavioral disorders. The larger, more aggressive dogs competed for food and water, while smaller, weaker dogs like birthing mothers and their whelps became prey. More than 100 had to be euthanized because the severity of their problems didn’t allow for a reasonable recovery. Although more than 400 dogs were adopted out, there is no data on how many of them may have been returned to local shelters because of entrenched behavioral issues.”
Kimberly Intino, director of animal sheltering issues at the HSUS in Washington, D.C., reiterates that the fate of the animals subsequent to a raid depends largely on their overall health and disposition. As for the hoarders themselves, they often face cruelty charges or judicial orders to undergo therapy. “If a person is convicted of animal cruelty, their sentence is contingent on local and state laws, whether the charge is considered a misdemeanor or felony, and how many counts are involved,” Intino says. “In the majority of these cases, there is no direct intent to harm animals, so that is a mitigating factor. Some hoarders will receive a mandate to give up pets, but unless they are monitored, the recidivism rate is close to 100 percent.”
Despite the inhumane conditions that hoarders’ pets endure, Cardona points out that the perpetrators themselves are also living in unhealthy conditions and require psychological treatment and sometimes even extended care. “It’s critical to take action as soon as hoarding is suspected,” she says. “I realize friends, family, and neighbors may assume it’s none of their business or may not want to get a loved one in trouble. Keep in mind, however, that hoarders become more and more isolated as time passes, which in turn leads to the situation only further deteriorating for the people and pets involved.”
Citizens who believe someone may be hoarding animals are urged to contact the police, animal control officers, animal shelters, or local social service agencies. In the best-case scenario, if an intervention occurs early enough, pets can sometimes be spayed or neutered and returned to guardians once such individuals begin treatment and receive assistance in cleaning and organizing their living environment. But in these instances, it’s crucial for friends and family to maintain contact with them on a long-term basis or to arrange for any of the aforementioned officials to do routine wellness checks.
As Killeen emphasizes, every human and animal affected by hoarding requires immediate attention, and the public can improve and save lives simply by picking up the phone. “Do your part and call someone who can help before it’s too late. The sooner authorities can begin gathering information and intervening, the more likely it is that communities will prevent devastating tragedies from occurring.”
ASPCA – New York City: Mobile Clinic—Animal Hoarding
HSUS – Behind Closed Doors: The Horrors of Animal Hoarding