New Mexico's Pet ResourceSPRING 2003

by Mickey Rogers

For many, the term "animal hoarder" brings to mind an elderly woman living alone with a house full of cats. Despite that stereotype, the fact is that animal hoarders are found in all ages, genders, professions and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Stories about hoarders flood the news and the internet. They may be desperate appeals for help, such as "Urgent Emergency: Dogs starving in Stillwell, Oklahoma!" In this case, the "owner" of 76 dogs had died leaving no provisions for their care. Before being discovered, 21 dogs starved to death.

Other stories are reported after the fact. A woman in Philadelphia lived with hundreds of cats, not to mention rats and roaches. Police intervened when neighbors reported a terrible smell coming from the house. They discovered she'd fallen days earlier and broken her hip. Unable to provide their meals, she was literally "eaten alive" by the cats.

Hoarders are often portrayed by the media as rescuers or heroes. What may appear to be a noble cause, is actually a compulsion. The former term "collector" has been abandoned as it implies a harmless hobby. "Hoarding" better defines the pathological nature of this behavior. The Cambridge International Dictionary definition for hoarding is: "To collect large amounts of something and keep it in a safe, often secret, place" while Webster's reads: "To amass and preserve in secret."

The total number of hoarders that exist remains unknown, but the crisis is rampant. Hoarding can cause serious safety and health issues, and recently has it been identified as a mental health problem. According to the "Hoarding Fact Sheet" published by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health, hoarding is defined as "the excessive collection and retention of ...animals until they interfere with day-to-day functions such as home, health, family, work and social life."

To address this problem, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) was formed in conjunction with the Tufts University's Center for Animals and Public Policy, Boston University, Northeastern University, Smith College and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

A recent HARC survey found that hoarders often view "rescued" animals as surrogate children or love substitutes and form excessive emotional attachments to them. Hoarders often have erroneous beliefs about animal shelters or legitimate rescue organizations, and see themselves as the only one who cares. After rescuing animals, hoarders find excuses for not adopting them out to good homes, and so the "collection" continues to grow. Though responsibilities and expenses become too much for the hoarders to handle, they live in a state of denial that prevents them from seeing overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, or from understanding their animals are sick, dying or dead.

As Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, Gary J. Patronek, VMD/PhD, is an expert on animal hoarding. In his 1999 Public Health Report, "Hoarding of Animals: An Under-Recognized Public Health Problem in a Difficult-to-Study Population" Patronek found in 69% of cases, animal feces and urine accumulated in living areas, and over 25% of the hoarders' beds were soiled with feces or urine. A significant number had difficulty maintaining a home. Many had no telephone, no central plumbing or heating, and non-functional appliances and utilities.

Dead or sick animals were discovered in 80% of reported cases, yet in nearly 60% of cases the hoarder denied the problem. This was demonstrated recently when Animal Control officers removed over 100 cats from a home in Mesilla Park, New Mexico. Inside a kitchen freezer they found the carcasses of 82 additional cats - each stored in a one-gallon freezer bag, marked with a brief description and date.

How many pets are too many? The answer is not so much in the number of pets, but rather how they and their owners live. Among hoarders, social isolation is common but appears to result from the hoarding behavior rather than causing it. The HARC study suggests hoarders often feel their pets are central to their identities, that giving up even one often causes a grief-like reaction and a sense of loss of part of themselves. It may be that identifying with an abandoned or unloved animal prompts an emotional response so powerful that the hoarder feels compelled to save it. Even after their animals are confiscated, hoarders often resume their collecting behavior.

Hoarders not only create problems for themselves, they create larger ones for real rescuers at a later date. Over 500 dogs were extricated in an East Oregon seizure that involved nine rescue organizations. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) declared it a "disaster". In that instance, 122 of the 552 dogs had to be euthanized.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Patronek said "The tragedy of these cases is that the primary focus is on rescuing the animals. It's the people who are forgotten."

What distinguishes a rescuer from a hoarder? Rescuers understand that there are limits to what they can do. Not every stray or abused animal can be saved and placing a pet in an adoptive home gives it a better chance at getting the proper care and attention it needs. Placing it in a permanent home allows the opportunity to rescue another abandoned animal.

How can you help a suspected hoarder? Intervention is vital to the welfare of the animals. If you see signs of hoarding, call your local Humane Society or Animal Control immediately. Reporting can be done anonymously. Fax your representatives and tell them you support New Mexico House Bill 19 introduced by Joseph M. Thompson (R), which makes animal hoarding a misdemeanor and allows the court to order psychological assessment and counseling or treatment for the offender. To eradicate the horrors of hoarding, the welfare and treatment of both the hoarder and the animals must be addressed.

an obsession, compulsion or preoccupation with "rescuing" animals;
the inability to stop rescuing, despite a lack of financial and housing resources;
abuse through neglect of personal, physical, and environmental conditions;
denial about the reality of the situation, unsanitary conditions, sick or deceased animals;
an unwillingness to find animals good adoptive homes, finding excuses to reject applicants, mistaken beliefs about shelter alternatives;
isolation from society and avoiding any contact that might expose the situation, such as inviting guests to the home;
a misperception that simply preserving life is more important than providing for the quality of that life.

Mickey Rogers is an award-winning writer and artist, and owner of Critter Sitters, a petsitting service that serves the Santa Fe and Eldorado areas. She was named "Journalist of the Year" by New Mexico’s Week for the Animals for two years in a row.

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