Shedding Some Light on the Dark Secrets of Animal Hoarding

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Shedding Some Light on the Dark Secrets of Animal Hoarding

[Ed. Note: For more information, visit The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.]

By Stephanie Feldstein
July 2010

There are still a lot of unanswered – and perhaps unanswerable – questions, but at least these shows are bringing the issue to light. It’s estimated that a quarter-million animals are victims of hoarding each year; that’s a number we can’t just turn our backs on.

Hoarding, particularly of animals, fascinates me. I’ve addressed the issue a few times over at Change.org: on relapsed hoarders, rescuers-turned-hoarders, How to Avoid Being a Compulsive Hoarder, The Truth About the “Crazy Cat Lady” and, most recently, on Animal Planet’s Confessions: Animal Hoarding.

Ever since witnessing my first hoarding cases while working at the local humane society, I’ve tried to understand how something like this happens: What makes someone fly past the tipping point of having multiple animals to having an unlivable situation? It’s one thing not to notice the dust bunny in the corner or the recycling that’s a few days past needing to go outside, but piles of feces and dead animals laying around the house? I remember one case in particular where there were so many dirty dishes in the sink and so much garbage piled around the kitchen that the homeowners had rigged up a hose from the sink, run it through the house and tied it off in various spots where they’d want access to water. At what point did that contraption make more sense than doing the dishes, or even just throwing the dishes out?

That desire to fathom the unfathomable is what had me looking forward to the new Animal Planet Confessions series that premiered on Wednesday, July 21, 2010.

Did the show meet my expectations? For the most part, yes.

One thing that I admire about these intervention-type shows is that they introduce you to the people as, well, people. They’re no longer reduced to headlines and statistics, but they’re human beings with feelings and families and very, very real problems. In the world of animal hoarding, that’s huge. Typically, all you know about an animal hoarder is that it’s someone who caused the suffering – and often death – of dozens or hundreds of innocent animals, who lives in squalor and in an incredible state of denial. All those things are still true when you watch the show, but as with any life, there are layers. Don’t get me wrong: nothing can make up for what these animals endure. But whether you’re looking for a sliver of compassion for the humans involved or you just want to stop it from ever happening to another animal, you need to get into those layers, as uncomfortable as they may be.

I know many people watch these hoarding shows from a voyeuristic standpoint. But for many of them, they’ve experienced a serious reality check by the end of the show. A New York Magazine article said, “The concept, from a distance is kind of amusing: Animal Planet jumped on the hoarding trend and tailored it to their specific, animal-loving audience … But what we saw was anything but funny.”

So, this first show followed Don and Bonnie. The juxtaposition of these two cases was really interesting because they each combined stereotypes with the unexpected. Don had what you may think of as your typical hoarder’s house – he had a lot of animals (30 cats) who had ruined everything from clothes to the walls. However, he didn’t have the “I love my animals more than anything else in the world” mentality that prevents a lot hoarders from changing their ways. His wife was his world. In this case, it was more like he got in over his head with unspayed and unneutered animals, and didn’t know how to turn back. He wasn’t scared for the animals’ future, but for his own – would he get arrested if he tried to get help?

Bonnie, on the other hand, had the textbook mentality (well, if a textbook existed…). She made several comments about how she’d die without her animals, how they were more important to her than any human in the world. The humane society had raided her house before, taking 100 animals and she had started acquiring again (at the end of the show, even after she was in therapy, she added another dog to her pack). Her house was in the state it was in because she refused to let her dogs outside for fear that they would get hurt or attract the attention of authorities who would take them away. The part that some people may find surprising? Bonnie only had eight small dogs at this point. (Okay, that may seem like a lot to some of you single-pet households, but for those involved in rescue, that’s not necessarily an absurd number.) It was her all-consuming paranoia and compulsion when it came to her dogs, and her willingness to ignore her house being used as a toilet, at the expense of everyone’s health, that raised the red flags that this was not your typical multiple-pet household. I think she’s going to have a much harder time than Don in overcoming her hoarding in the long run.

Each of the six episodes will highlight people who hoard different combinations of animals for different reasons. Keep watching.

If you, like me, are really interested in wrapping your head around the hoarder mentality, I highly recommend the book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. The book combines case studies with commentary from these therapists to provide a truly unique insight. Among other revelations, the book points out that we all have attachments to objects that don’t make any logical sense; it’s when the objects (or the desire to rescue animals) takes over one’s life that hoarding becomes an issue. (In addition to Stuff, the Tufts University Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium and Animal Planet’s website for the show are also excellent resources to learn more about animal hoarding.)

There are still a lot of unanswered – and perhaps unanswerable – questions, but at least these shows are bringing the issue to light. It’s estimated that a quarter-million animals are victims of hoarding each year; that’s a number we can’t just turn our backs on.