Hoarders Need Our Help Not Our Hostility

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Hoarders Need Our Help Not Our Hostility

From The National Humane Education Society
August 2009

What Is Hoarding?

Before the early 1990s, little was known about hoarding in general or animal hoarding in particular. Even today, the disease is still not well understood. Animal hoarding has been called the most egregious form of animal cruelty. Unlike a single act of animal cruelty, animal hoarding affects large numbers of animals for long periods of time. A single hoarder may have hundreds of animals in his or her care, all living in squalor for years. According to Randall Lockwood, PhD, senior vice president at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, "In terms of the toll it takes, hoarders are a much more serious source of animal suffering.” Randall further states, “Being kept by a hoarder is a slow kind of death for the animal. Actually, it's a fate worse than death." Hoarders have a pathological need to obtain and control animals; however, they fail to recognize the suffering they are inflicting on the animals, on themselves, or on anyone who lives with them.

"Historically, collecting animals was viewed as an animal lover who gets in over his or her head, but the truth is that people who hoard are at a total loss of insight,” says Lockwood. “They have no real perception of the harm they're doing…."

Animal hoarding is often a symptom of greater mental illness. According to the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), “Because removing animals from a hoarder does not resolve the problem, mental health professionals must explore the relationship of the hoarder and the hoarded animals.” Also, according to the Consortium, “With recidivism close to 100%, animal hoarding has evidently not been mitigated by customary sentencing that is limited to fines, forfeiture of some or all of the animals, prohibiting future ownership, and (rarely) incarceration. …the motivation and perpetuation of animal hoarding has psychological underpinnings which are not lessened in their intensity by these sanctions alone.”

Researchers estimate between 3,000 and 7,000 new cases of animal hoarding occur yearly, accounting for the suffering and death of over 250,000 animals. Dr. Gary Patronek and his colleagues on the HARC identified four key characteristics of animal hoarders:

  • Failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care for the animals
  • Inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment
  • Obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions
  • Denial or minimization of problems and living conditions for people and animals

Not the Little Old Lady in Tennis Shoes

The image of the animal hoarder is often that of the little old lady, sometimes referred to as eccentric, who has a few too many cats. She’s someone who might be considered a little “odd” or “quirky” but certainly not someone suffering from mental illness and definitely not someone who harms animals.

In fact, many animal hoarders are intelligent, well-educated individuals who do not appear the least bit odd on the surface. Because of their ability to communicate well with the general public, they are often taken as well-meaning and caring animal people. If their situation becomes known to friends and family, they are often thought of as “in over their heads,” not someone suffering from a mental disorder. Animal hoarders often believe:

  • they are helping, not hurting animals
  • their home is better than letting the animal die
  • they have done nothing wrong
  • they are properly caring for these animals
  • these animals would not be alive without their personal care

Animal hoarders are able to manipulate others into believing they are doing their utmost to protect the animals in their care. However, they are incapable of seeing the harm they are doing the animals, that they and the animals are living in extreme filth, and that they are inflicting great suffering on these animals. They do not see piles of feces and areas of dried urine in their home. They do not see the collection of other junk like newspapers, empty food cans, clothing, and broken items piled high in their homes and yards. They will often have dead and decomposing bodies on their property or in freezers and think nothing of this practice.

Animal hoarders are often not identified until the situation has reached a critical level. Odors emanating from the home cause neighbors to contact authorities. Or members of the hoarder’s family or work unit begin to notice the individual showing up late for work, distancing him or herself from family events, having a foul odor about his or her clothing and hair. Even then authorities need a reason to search a home and without probable cause cannot simply barge into someone’s house and start removing animals.

Types of Hoarders

In Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk, written by a team from the HARC, three types of hoarders were identified: overwhelmed caregivers, rescue hoarders, and exploiter hoarders.

Overwhelmed caregivers initially are able to provide appropriate care for the animals. But events in their lives (i.e., loss of job, divorce, illness, death of family member) eventually take over causing them to be unable to handle the animals’ care and unable to figure out ways to correct the situation. They are often isolated individuals who have strong attachments to the animals as family members. They tend to minimize the problems in their homes rather than outright deny them. They are often open to assistance by others to help them solve the problems confronting them.

Rescue hoarders are on a mission to save animals, usually from euthanasia at a shelter or possible death at the hands of the animals’ owners. They believe they are the only ones who can care for the animal. They become compulsive about saving animals. They acquire animals actively rather than passively the way the overwhelmed caregiver usually obtains animals. The rescue hoarder often belongs to a network of those engaged in rescuing animals. They avoid contact with authorities.

Exploiter hoarders seek animals to serve personal needs. They are indifferent to the harm they cause the animals. They deny there is a problem, and they reject authority figures. They have a need for extreme control. Exploiter hoarders come across as articulate, charming people who are good at manipulating situations and people to get what they want. They tend to have sociopathic characteristics and/or personality disorders. They will lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want. They show no remorse for their actions.

“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. Preliminary HARC interviews also suggest that hoarders grew up in chaotic households, with inconsistent parenting, in which animals may have been the only stable feature."

Their mental illness often does not allow hoarders to see the situation they are in or that they are approaching anything nearing a crisis. They do not see the filth, smell the stench, or otherwise are aware of the animals in their care who are suffering and dying. They often do not know how many animals they actually have in their care. They do not see how their home has deteriorated or how infested it and the animals are with fleas and vermin.

Hoarders are like addicts. They need intervention to help them cope with their addiction. They will never be “cured” but they can be controlled. As yet, there is no diagnosis established in the diagnostic manual used by psychologists (DSM-IV-RT) on hoarding

Legal Issues

As mentioned above, the recidivism rate for animal hoarders is 100 percent. Therefore, a psychological assessment should be ordered for anyone found guilty of animal hoarding. If the offender is found to suffer from a mental health issue, then a combination of mental health therapy and long-term monitoring is often the best approach. Jail time alone does not compel the offender to change his or her behavior.

The longer a hoarder is on probation, the more likely through counseling he or she will be able to handle the issues that turned him or her into a hoarder in the first place. Often as part of a sentence, the individual is not allowed to have contact with animals for a period of typically five years, or if allowed to have animals may have only one or two pets who must be spayed and neutered.

Along with laws to protect animals and adequate and appropriate sentencing guidelines, educating the community, including law enforcement, family members, social workers and others in helping professions, veterinarians, medical professionals, etc., will eliminate much pain, suffering, and death on the part of the hoarded animals and will help serve the mental health needs of the hoarder more adequately.

When a social worker goes into a home that is cluttered and where there are numerous animals housed in filthy conditions, a call to animal control might be in order. If an animal control officer is called to check conditions at a home and sees children in filthy conditions, a call to social services might be in order. When doctors see children with flea bites, scratches, and other examples of animal contact, a call to animal control and social services might be in order. In other words, everyone has to look out for signs and symptoms beyond just their immediate relationship with the individual or family.

Side Effects of Animal Hoarding

There are numerous side effects to the act of animal hoarding. The hoarders’ homes deteriorate and often have to be razed. Physical and psychological problems often affect others living in the house with the hoarder. The health risks to those living in the house include diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans, such as:

  • toxoplasmosis, cat scratch disease, and ringworm (cats)
  • salmonellosis (reptiles, birds, and farm animals)
  • psittacosis (birds)
  • campylobacter (dogs and cats)
  • cryptosporidium (cats, dogs, farm animals)

Others who are affected are the personnel from those agencies who come into the home to remove the diseased, dying, and dead animals; those who have to care for the animals still alive, many of whom are terrified; and those who euthanize the animals who are too damaged or diseased to recover from the experience of being kept by a hoarder. Much of the expense of going into the homes; housing, caring for, and euthanizing the animals; and prosecuting the hoarder is borne at taxpayer expense.

Then there is the disposition of the animals. Can any of them be rehabilitated to be adopted or will they require long-term care? Animal shelters normally stretched to their limits are often overwhelmed by the presence of hundreds of additional animals who are in debilitated conditions. Often a shelter cannot take in any other animals or winds up euthanizing adoptable animals to make room for the hoarders’ animals while legal action is being pursued.

A Side Note

If you are thinking about relinquishing an animal, please research the person and/or group to whom you intend to surrender your animal. Are you sure you are not putting your animal in harms’ way? Ask to visit the place where your animal will be housed. If you are told you cannot see it, then you do not want to leave your animal with that person/group. Be careful of Internet sites that might look loving. They may be nothing more than a front for a hoarder.

Take Action to Help Hoarders and the Animals in their Possession

What can we do to change what is happening to animals in the possession of hoarders? First, we can report animal cruelty wherever and whenever we see it. Other humane actions include:

  • Support legislation that limits the number of animals one individual may own
  • Contact prosecuting attorneys and judges to urge them to include mental health counseling in sentences of individuals convicted of animal cruelty, especially animal hoarding
  • Support organizations that focus on investigation into animal abuse
  • Support humane organizations in your area that are enforcing anti-cruelty statutes
  • Write letters to the editor of local newspapers supporting animal welfare issues
  • Educate others about the misery involved in hoarding
  • Contact social service groups—often where there is animal cruelty taking place in a home, child and elderly neglect/abuse might be occurring as well
  • Volunteer your time to help shelters handle the animals that are in their possession

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