We may know of a “dog lady” down the street who hides away the animals she “saves”. We turn a blind eye and perhaps think – what harm can it do? We may even think of her as a kind person. But if she is an animal hoarder she can not only harm – she can kill, maim, and cause unspeakable torture for generations of helpless animals. Even purebreds are not immune, for the animal hoarder may also be a breeder. Animal hoarding is far more prevalent than most people realize. Up to 2,000 cases of animal hoarding are discovered in the United States every year – which adds up to the suffering of many thousands of animals – and that may only be the tip of the iceberg.
According to HARC, the Tufts University Veterinary Medical School Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, animal hoarding, previously known as collecting, is a poorly understood phenomenon which transcends simply owning or caring for more than the typical number of pets, and affects every community in the US. It has serious consequences for people, animals, and communities. New cases are reported in the media each day, with dozens of others unreported, and still more undetected. Animal hoarding is a community problem. It is cruel to animals, can devastate families, be associated with elder abuse, child abuse, and self-neglect, and be costly for municipalities to resolve. Without appropriate post-intervention treatment, recidivism approaches 100%. Increased awareness, leading to more comprehensive long-term interventions, is needed. Animal Hoarding is not about animal sheltering, rescue, or sanctuary, and should not be confused with these legitimate efforts to help animals. It is about satisfying a human need to accumulate animals and control them, and this need supersedes the needs of the animals involved. Animal hoarding is becoming a growing problem since it is becoming more recognized. Animal Hoarding was first identified and researched in 1997 by Dr Gary J Patronek, DVM, Ph.D., and his team through HARC at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, North Grafton, Massachusetts. Dr Patronek and his associates were the first to use the term animal hoarding and to write a definition of the phrase, thus, an animal hoarder is defined as:
Someone who accumulates a large number of animals, fails to provide even the minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care, and fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation and even death), or the environment (severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions) or the negative effect of the collection on their own health and well-being and on that of other household members.
Hoarders can fool you. In public they may appear to be well dressed, productive members of society. They often take great care with their appearance and may present a polished, even superior image which belies the filth and degradation in which they live. Perhaps the most prominent psychological feature of these individuals is that pets (and other possessions) become central to the hoarder’s core identity. The hoarder develops a strong need for control, and just the thought of losing an animal can produce an intense grief-like reaction. This may account for the difficulty this causes some observers of hoarders who misunderstand the grief reaction for a real concern for the animal’s welfare when, in fact, hoarders are concerned with their own needs and not the condition of the animals at all. One of the main points made by HARC about the disease of animal hoarding is that while hoarders may view themselves as saviors of the animals, they are driven by a need to control. Hoarding is not about loving or saving, it is about power and control- the power to control a helpless creature. Animal hoarding is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – the rationale is that nobody could possibly care for the animal as well as they can, nor, more importantly, love them as much as they do.
It has also been suggested that animal hoarding is a form of passive cruelty. Hoarders typically profess a great love for their animals and yet, by everyone else’s standards, the conditions under which the animals live are nothing short of barbaric – homes are usually cluttered and unsanitary with feces all over the house, debris, rats, fleas and other parasites and, in many cases rotting corpses of the very animals that these people profess to love so dearly. Conditions in a lot of these homes are often such that even the Animal Control officers who are ultimately called to deal with these cases have been known to vomit at the sights that greet them when they finally gain access. The stench of rotting debris, of feces and ammonia from pets that do all their ‘business’ within four walls make it not only a dangerous and unhealthy proposition for these case workers, but also for the residents who live with the animals, and of course the animals themselves.
Studies suggest that in hoarding cases, for the most part, there will usually be one person involved, or perhaps a couple. Typically, animal hoarders tend to be female, older and solitary. They concentrate on one or two species of animals and fail to acknowledge the extent of the lack of sanitation and animal suffering. They may also be on disability, retired or unemployed.
Hoarding, by definition, is a condition in which animals are deprived of even minimal standards of care. The consequences of this deprivation vary in each situation, depending on how far it deteriorates until discovered. In some cases, particularly in the early stages, the visible signs of suffering are few – perhaps mild weight loss, poor hair coat, and parasites. Despite whatever physical afflictions do or do not develop, the psychological suffering from intensive confinement will go even more unnoticed. As conditions deteriorate and / or crowding increases, irritating levels of ammonia develop from the accumulated feces and urine, infectious diseases may spread, injuries develop and are not treated, sick animals are ignored, and the early stages of starvation may begin. As conditions spiral downward, animals die from lack of food or water and untreated illness or injury. It is not unusual for dead animals to be found among the living, with some animals cannibalizing the corpses of others. In some cases, this may involve only a few animals, in other cases, homes or farms become literal graveyards, with bodies scattered where they fell.
Even when confronted with the obvious – feces piled a foot or more deep, dead animals in human living spaces, a home not fit for habitation by humans or animals, the hoarder will deny that anything is wrong or will minimize the interpretation of events.
The Role of Excuses in Animal Hoarding
One of the most exasperating parts of dealing with an animal hoarder is the wide range of excuses that are offered for the behavior and the substandard condition of the animals and environment. Hoarders are almost always in a state of complete denial. Typically they may say that the house is just a little messy or the animals are fine, when you may have to pick your way through rotting corpses. A hoarder’s excuses are driven by attempts to maintain a positive self-image and self-esteem. Self-images are developed for both internal and external audiences. External audiences are those people who may be in a position to evaluate a person’s actions. Maintaining a positive image is important, and perhaps even essential, to enable a person to continue certain types of behaviors and avoid certain consequences. For animal hoarders, HARC’s work suggests that animals may be an important identity-building device, and that the animals may be critical for the hoarder’s self-esteem.
The Role of the Law in Relation to Animal Hoarders
Perhaps the biggest problem in trying to stop animal hoarding is the lack of strong animal laws. There is NO Federal Law which regulates the care of pet animals by private owners or animal shelters. However, every state in the US has animal cruelty statutes which prohibit cruel treatment and/or require an owner to provide proper shelter, adequate nutrition and clean water, a sanitary safe environment, and necessary veterinary care. Thus, on a very simple level, it seems that hoarding would be an obvious violation of the most basic provisions. In actual practice, establishing a violation of the law is more difficult than it might appear from reading the statutes, for a variety of reasons, one being the way the laws are written. The language in the legislation is often vague and antiquated, leaving ample room for interpretation. The hoarder can provide a loophole for defining what is necessary. An additional problem is that much of the cruelty which arises in these situations is psychological suffering from chronic neglect, intensive confinement in small cages, and lack of opportunities to socialize with either people or other animals, or being confined in close proximity to animals which may be aggressive or threatening. These are factors which might best be described as Quality of Life issues, something which is almost uniformly absent from existing statutes in any explicit sense. Therefore, each court is left to its own combination of expert testimony and prevailing community standards. Even when statutory husbandry standards exist, often they apply only to specific entities such as pet stores, shelters, kennels, and catteries, leaving individuals such as hoarders untended by the law.
Despite these obstacles, investigation under the cruelty to animals statutes is often the only way to begin an intervention in hoarding cases. Such an investigation should be conducted by, or with guidance from, a highly experienced humane investigator. From start to finish, the collection of evidence in these cases needs to be airtight to get a search warrant that will stand up and lead to either a conviction or the possibility of a favorable negotiated agreement or plea bargain.
What happens when the hoarder is also a breeder?
It may be easy to spot the “dog lady” down the street who has too many dogs, but what happens when an animal hoarder is also a breeder? This area should be of great concern to purebred dog fanciers. Because hoarders can pass for normal people who are well dressed, polite, and well spoken, they may be easily able to hide their dark secret. In general, hoarders do not allow anyone to visit their homes or kennels. The hoarder may present a very charming exterior when appearing at public dog events. Misguided people may wind up enabling hoarders to continue their slide into mental illness and their cruelty to the animals because they do not understand animal hoarding. Animal hoarding often is only apparent in its entirety when one enters the home of a hoarder and sees the astoundingly filthy conditions in which they live. In fact, the homes of animal hoarders are sometimes so appalling that the premises have to be burned down or bulldozed. Reputable breeders and rescue groups can ensure that their animals will not fall into the hands of a hoarder by not only doing extensive interviews, but also making a visit to the premises before placing a dog in any home.
While animal hoarding is relatively unknown to the general public, it is a very real mental illness which affects entire communities and takes the worst toll on its animal victims. Hoarders have chameleon-like abilities to present themselves as charming and functioning members of society while living in the most appalling conditions and causing the animals in their control to live a hellish existence. Laws are antiquated and ill equipped to deal with the problem, and there is currently no effective medical treatment for the condition of animal hoarding. Hoarders are highly likely to hoard again even if they are convicted within the legal system because the system fails to monitor their activities. The burden for preventing and stopping hoarders lies with each and all of us who love our animals. We must speak out to update the laws and stiffen penalties for convicted hoarders to at least include monitoring; we must keep our eyes and ears open within the community for signs of local hoarders. And, if a hoarder is suspected, we must follow specific, well documented steps to close them down.
Signs of an Animal Hoarder:
•Hoarders are most often older women who live alone.
•Hoarders typically no support network of family or friends.
•Hoarders are typically on disability, retired or unemployed.
•Up to 2000 cases of hoarding are known to occur in the U.S. each year.
•While hoarders profess their love for animals, hoarding is not about love but about control.
•Hoarding is considered a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Hoarders are mentally ill.
•Hoarders are usually in a state of complete denial; they do not see the destruction they cause.
•Hoarding is defined not by the numbers of animals, but by the way they are kept.
•Hoarders put their personal and community health at risk.
•Hoarders fail to provide even minimal standards of care or sanitation.
•Homes of hoarders are usually in such filthy condition that the premises have to be destroyed.
•Even if convicted of hoarding, hoarders are usually able to move and begin the cycle again. There is almost a 100% rate of repetition.
Additional information about Animal Hoarding can be found at: The Hoarding of Animals Consortium (HARC), Tufts University Veterinary Medical School
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