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This started when I read one too many stories about some recluse who, when their neighbors finally got the city to act on repeated complaints about noxious odors, turned out to be living in filth and squalor with 137 live cats, all of them in pitiable condition, plus the rotting or mummified or partly cannibalized or refrigerated carcasses of an indeterminate number of dead cats.
It came to me that I’d seen a great many of these stories, and that they were all of a pattern. What was going on there? I went googling to find out.
Take a deep breath.
The term for it is animal collecting or animal hoarding. Basically, hoarders accumulate an impossible number of animals—more than they can care or provide for, and far too many for the available space. Their quarters rapidly become a stew of filth, misery, and suffering animals. For instance:
I volunteered to assist in a collector case involving a woman who claimed to breed “show poodles.” The neighbors finally called the police because of the foul odor coming from her house. …Hoarding used to be thought of as an eccentricity, but more and more it’s being recognized as a social problem—and, more to the point, a form of mental illness. Here’s Salon on the subject:
This collector was a middle-aged woman who had literally filled her house to the brim with poodles — letting them breed and inbreed until she ended up with at least 40 poodles in a tiny two-bedroom house. Since she never let them outside to go to the bathroom, layers upon layers of urine, feces, and newspapers stood two to three feet high throughout the home. The dogs were covered in their own urine and feces and their coats were severely matted from lack of care.
One dog had just given birth to a litter of puppies, yet she was so thin I could see every bone in her body. Old dogs, young dogs, and even puppies all suffered, living in deplorable conditions with no visible food or water. Emaciated dogs fed off the carcasses of dogs that had already starved to death. Others crouched in corners and hid behind furniture in fear from the lack of human companionship and socialization. … All of the dogs were emaciated, many were obviously sick, yet the woman denied any wrongdoing in the care she provided for her dogs.
Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, argues that animal hoarding represents a vastly misunderstood problem. …Animal hoarding, says Patronek, is the end state of several different pathways. It can be an outgrowth of the problems of old age. Sometimes it’s just good intentions colliding with bad coping, like the couple in North Carolina who took in 100 potbellied pigs. Unfortunately, she then fell ill; and after that, as her husband said, “Things just get away from you.”
“For years it’s been perceived as an animal welfare issue, and left for the shelters to handle by themselves,” Patronek says. “The human [side of the problem] has been largely ignored.”
Patronek and his group, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), coined the phrase “animal hoarding” in 1997. It was a watershed moment: There had always been cat ladies, and newspaper stories about them began to appear routinely a decade ago, but they were referred to, rather benignly, as collectors.
“That connoted nothing,” says Patronek, who, as a veterinarian, has walked into homes putrid with rotting carcasses and urine-soaked floors. He says the behavior “is much more like the pathological hoarding of objects.”
Many animal hoarders also compulsively hoard objects. Even without the animals, their houses would still be cluttered and disorganized, becoming in their end stages what social service providers call garbage houses. This may put them on the same map as the obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD), as opposed to the addictive model some animal-welfare advocates favor. Even more than people who live in garbage houses, animal hoarders tend to become secretive and isolated. Their lives fold inward until it’s just them, the animals, and a houseful of sh*t.
Some statistics: It’s estimated that there are 700 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States. Two studies of hoarders showed:
Most cases were female (76%), a large proportion (46%) were 60 years of age or older; most were single, divorced or widowed; and almost half lived alone. The most common animals involved were cats (65%) and dogs (60%). … The conditions described were fairly consistent in both studies. Dead or sick animals were discovered in 80% of reported cases, yet in nearly 60% of cases the hoarder would not acknowledge the problem. In 69% of cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas, and over one-quarter of the hoarders’ beds were soiled with feces or urine. … A significant number of hoarders had nonfunctional utilities (i.e., bathroom plumbing, cooking facilities, heat, refrigeration and electricity).Sometimes the only cleanup option is to burn or bulldoze the house.
That’s one level of weirdness. (Level 1.1: Hoarding beavers.) Next level: Hoarders say they love animals, and characteristically believe that they have exceptional insight where animals are concerned. They also believe they’re “saving” them from certain euthanasia. They refuse to let them be adopted by others. Some can’t even bear to relinquish their animals’ corpses :
An investigator found dead cats in one collector’s freezer. Another collector, also unable to accept the death of her cats, eviscerated their bodies and dried them on her fire escape, keeping their dried remains in cupboards. Many collectors see themselves as the only person who can help animals, and they distrust other individuals or groups who offer assistance. When outsiders intervene, collectors may refuse to part with any of their animals, even through adoption or veterinary care for the sick.As one animal welfare worker said, “Collecting is not about having a loving home. Collecting is not about love, it’s about control. I have real contempt for collectors.”
Pamela Frasch, an attorney with the anti-cruelty division of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, … recalls one collector who, when her dogs were seized, fought to keep them from being treated with medication for heartworm. Demanding holistic treatment, the woman kept the case tied up in court as each of the dogs died a painful death from that illness. “The standard line,” says Frasch, “is, ‘I love these animals and no one can love them as I can.’And again from Salon:
“Perhaps the most prominent psychological feature of these individuals is that pets (and other possessions) become central to the hoarder’s core identity,” Patronek writes in Municipal Lawyer magazine. “The hoarder develops a strong need for control, and just the thought of losing an animal can produce an intense grief-like reaction. …To me, the most striking feature of the animal hoarder’s psychology is their state of complete and utter denial. This is not your usual “Your father never did that, you don’t understand what he was going through, and why do you insist on only remembering the bad things?” kind of denial. This is world-class craziness. Hoarders insist there’s no problem, the house is just a little messy, and their critters are fine—even when the feces are a foot deep, animals are dropping dead and other animals are cannibalizing them, or the poor beasts have chronic infections that leave them with masses of scar tissue instead of eyes. If it weren’t real, it would be unbelievable:
On their way to the squad car, hoarders often explain that they simply love animals, or that these particular critters would’ve died without their intervention, or that in a mere two cats lies loneliness. The would-be animal rescuers often say they hear a calling. The problem is that they don’t always answer properly. The great irony regarding hoarders, of course, is that their loving benevolence commonly leaves a trail of horribly sick and neglected animals.
Irene Holmes, a District Attorney who has assisted in the prosecution of a number of collector cases throughout the United States, … states that collectors have a “death grip on denial.” She gives the example of a woman who was shown a photograph of one of the dogs that was seized from her care. The photo shows a Weimaraner, so starved from lack of food that it was literally shedding its intestines and rectum. Holmes relates that when the woman who owned the dog looked at the photo, her only comment was “I guess it did seem a little ill.”Their recidivism rate is close to 100%. I can think of two ways to get an idea of the magnitude of the misery involved. One is to read the Humane Society’s two-part article on how to conduct a large-scale intervention. The other is to read about the career of Marilyn Barletta, the Petaluma Cat Lady, or the even stranger case of Vikki Kittles.
Although many cases are successfully prosecuted, the punishment is seldom severe — very few collectors are punished beyond paying a fine. Even collectors whose animals have all been confiscated, and those who have been convicted of animal cruelty as the result of their collecting and neglecting animals, seldom stop this aberrant behavior. Most just move to another county or state and start collecting all over again. For example, a Maryland collector had 50 companion animals confiscated from her residence a few years ago. Two days later she had 20 more animals …Addendum: If you’re interested in the clutter-and-hoarding angle but can’t deal with the animal mistreatment stories, you want the following links from the paragraph that begins, “Many animal hoarders also compulsively hoard objects”: hoard , objects, cluttered (1), cluttered (2), end stages, garbage houses, and OCD. The piece on garbage houses is particularly striking.