I never knew that there was such a thing as animal hoarding until I watched an episode of this problem on OWN. The episode was about two people–a woman and a young man. The woman was married and had two children–a boy and a girl. The woman started adopting animals after her third child was stillborn.
Things got out of hand. The woman invested all of her time and energy into taking care of the animals. She didn’t have any time for her family. The animals came first. The husband watched helplessly as more and more animals consumed his wife’s attention. It got to the point where her son left home because he couldn’t handle it. Her daughter became like her and started caring for the animals. I believe that the girl wanted to bond with her mother and this was the only way she could do it. Now they had something in common–their love for the animals.
There were so many animals in the house and on the property that the wife needed a bigger place to keep them so she bought a place and used the family’s home as collateral. They still had a mortgage on the house. She started to miss payments and the bank was going to foreclose. She didn’t have a job. The husband had tried to talk some sense into her by advising her not to make this investment but she didn’t listen. Now she found herself in a really bad situation. The city became involved in this after a while.
She and her husband and the children went for counseling. It came out in the session that the wife’s hoarding was a result of her loss of their third child. I think the child was a boy. She also didn’t believe that the husband didn’t grieve enough for their child. During the counseling, it became clear that she would have to give up some animals. They convinced her that it was the best thing for the animals because they were not cared for properly because there were too many of them. Some animal rescue organization came in and took some–not all of the animals away. The woman couldn’t bear to give them all away but she was left with a number she could manage.
After this breakthrough happened, the family went out for dinner and you could see the diference. They were laughing and having a good time. They were enjoying this time together. They were a family again.
What exactly is animal hoarding? It involves keeping higher than usual numbers of animals as domestic pets without having the ability to properly house or care for them, while at the same time denying this inability. Compulsive hoarding can be characterized as a symptom of mental disorder rather than deliberate cruelty towards animals. Hoarders are deeply attached to their pets and find it extremely difficult to let the pets go.
Why do people hoard animals? According to ASPCA, it is not clearly understood why people become animal hoarders. Early research pointed toward a variant of obsessive-compulsive disorders, but new studies and theories are leading toward attachment disorders in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, delusional thinking, depression and other mental illnesses. Some animal hoarders began collecting after a traumatic event or loss, while others see themselves as “rescuers” who save animals from lives on the street. In the woman’s case, she began hoarding animals after a traumatic loss. The man who was featured in this episode saw himself as a “rescuer” of of the animals. He wanted to provide them with the home and care that he didn’t get himself when he was growing up.
According to Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President, Forensic Sciences and Anti-cruelty Projects, “historically a person who collected animals was viewed as an animal lover who got in over his or her head, but the truth is that people who hoard are experiencing a total loss of insight. They have no real perception of the harm they’re doing to the animals.” As I watched the woman and the young man, it was clear that they had a different perception from those around them. They didn’t see that they were doing the animals more harm than good. In their eyes, they were helping, saving and caring for these animals.
I started to see that this was more about them than the animals. It was more about what having these animals around was doing for them and they failed to see that the conditions that these animals were living in were not at all beneficial for them. Dr. Lockwood adds, “They often are blind to the fact that they are not caring for the animals and to the extreme suffering they are inflicting. Being kept by a hoarder is a slow kind of death for the animal. Actually, it can be a fate worse than death.”
How could you tell if someone you love is an animal hoarder? Here are some signs:
- They have numerous animals and may not know the total number of animals in their care.
- Their home is deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in wall and floor, extreme clutter).
- There is a strong smell of ammonia, and floors may be covered with dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic and not well socialized.
- Fleas and vermin are present.
- Individual is isolated from community and appears to be in neglect himself.
- Individual insists all animals are happy and healthy—even when there are clear signs of distress and illness.
What can you do to help? ASPCA offers these tips:
- Pick up the phone and call your local humane law enforcement department, police department, animal shelter, animal welfare group or veterinarian to initiate the process. You may not want to get the person “in trouble,” but a phone call may be the first step to get them and the animals the help they need. You’re not helping the person if you don’t report him or her. According to ASPCA’s Allison Cardona, Director of Disaster Response. “What I would like to stress is that these situations only get worse with time, and the animals always end up getting taken out of the home. It is always better to say something—this is the first step for both the animals and the people to get the help they need.”
- Educate others about the misery involved in a hoarding situation. Animal hoarding has often been portrayed as an eccentricity—the elderly “cat lady.” The public needs to be made aware of the greater harm caused by animal hoarding.
- Contact social service groups and ask them to get involved. Animal hoarding is not just about the animals. Your local department of the aging, adult protective services, health departments and other mental health agencies may be able to provide services or links to services. It’s important to get the animal hoarder connected to the right services.
- Reassure the animal hoarder that it’s okay to accept help. Animal hoarders are usually worried that their animals will be killed or that they will never see them again. Regardless of the outcome, assure them that the animals need urgent care and that immediate action is necessary.
- Volunteer your time. With the removal of so many animals from a hoarding situation, the burden on local shelters can be staggering. Volunteer your time to help clean cages, socialize animals, walk dogs and perform other such necessary duties.
- Keep in touch. In many cases the animals are too unsocialized or too old and sick to be considered adoptable. However, it may be appropriate for the animals to be spayed and neutered and returned to the home if the animal hoarder can provide—or can be aided in providing—care. Under the guidance of an organization, help the individual with daily animal care chores. And if the individual acquires new animals, help ensure that they are spayed/neutered and vaccinated.
- Support local legislation. Laws that recognize hoarding as unlawful with appropriate punishment and mandatory treatment are necessary. Even though hoarding cases exhibit typical characteristics of animal abuse, they are rarely prosecuted because they fail to show the individual’s intent to harm.
If you suspect someone of animal hoarding, speak up, make the call that could help the person. Don’t worry about getting anyone in trouble. You are helping the person to make the change that will save his or her life and the lives of the animals being hoarded. Take action!