New York City, 2008- ASPCA'S Humane Law Enforcement agents arrived on the scene to find over 20 Pomeranian dogs in a couple's one-bedroom apartment. The canines were severely matted and the apartment was covered with filth and debris. The couple insisted that the animals were well cared for, despite physical evidence to the contrary, and refused to surrender them.
What explains behavior like this? Is there cruel intent behind it, or is it simply a case of well-meaning people who took on too much responsibility? Are there psychological issues at play? Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. It has been estimated that there are 900 to 2,000 new cases every year in the United States, with a quarter million animals falling victim. Those “collected” range in species from cats and dogs to reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals.
What Is Animal Hoarding?
Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate public health and community issue. Its effects are far-reaching and encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns.
The following criteria are used to define animal hoarding:
- More than the typical number of companion animals
- Inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness and death
- Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household and human occupants of the dwelling
This definition comes from the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, an independent group of academic researchers based in Massachusetts. The full definition and more info can be found at vet.tufts.edu/hoarding.
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Why Do People Hoard Animals?
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.
“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,” says Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President, Forensic Sciences and Anti-cruelty Projects. “They have no real perception of the harm they're doing to the animals."
In the majority of cases, animal hoarders appear intelligent and clearly believe they are helping their animals. They often claim that any home is better than letting that animal die. In addition, many hoarders possess the ability to garner sympathy and to deceive others into thinking their situation is under control. They often are blind to the fact that they are not caring for the animals and to the extreme suffering they are inflicting.
According to Dr. Lockwood, "Being kept by a hoarder is a slow kind of death for the animal. Actually, it can be a fate worse than death."
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How Can I Tell if Someone Is a Hoarder?
It's not always easy. Animal hoarders range in age, and can be men or women of any race or ethnic group. Elderly people tend to be more at risk due to their own deteriorating health and isolation from community and social groups. One commonality between all hoarders is a failure to grasp the severity of their situation.
“I have worked with many animal hoarders in their homes. Their mental illness allows them to maintain an absolute denial of the filth and the suffering of the animals,” says Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, ASPCA Senior Director of Counseling Services. “They simply cannot see or smell or react to the situation as a normal person would."
Here are several signs that may indicate someone is an animal hoarder:
- 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.
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Do Hoarders Often Pose as Rescue Groups or Sanctuaries?
Absolutely. Research shows many hoarders are beginning to set themselves up as “rescue shelters,” complete with 501(c)(3) not-for-profit status. They may appear to be sensible people, persuasively conveying their love for animals and readiness to take those who are sick and with special needs. Furthermore, the Internet appears to be becoming a great tool for solicitation.
“When looking to place an animal, it is easy for a person to get seduced by a pretty website,” points out Lockwood. “We need to caution people to look behind the curtain before giving over an animal.”
Here are several signs that a rescue group or shelter may involve a hoarder:
- The group is unwilling to let visitors see the location where animals are kept.
- The group will not disclose the number of animals in its care.
- Little effort is made to adopt animals out.
- More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals.
- Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations are viewed as the enemy.
- Animals may be received at a remote location (parking lot, street corner, etc.) rather than at the group's facilities.
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I Have Many Animals—Could I Be a Hoarder?
It's important to note that not everyone who has multiple animals is an animal hoarder. A person may have a dozen animals, and all are spayed and neutered and provided with regular veterinary care and a sanitary environment. This person would not be an animal hoarder. Even rescuers who occasionally become overwhelmed are not considered hoarders if they are actively trying to modify the situation. That said, if you think you might have too many animals to care for properly, please contact your local shelter or a veterinarian for help.
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How Prevalent Is Animal Hoarding?
It has been estimated that there are 900 to 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year in the United States, with a quarter million animals falling victim. Animals collected range from cats and dogs to reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals.
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Should Hoarders Be Prosecuted?
In most cases, criminal prosecution of animal hoarding can be a difficult process and may not be the most effective route. Such cases are difficult to successfully prosecute and, once litigation ends, the hoarder is likely to resume collecting an excessive number of animals unless closely monitored. “Hoarders are like drug addicts—you can't cure them, you can only prevent relapses,” says Lockwood.
Some say prosecution isn't the answer because hoarders are often emotionally troubled rather than criminally inclined. “Like many psychological conditions, the causes of animal hoarding are probably multiple and, therefore, assessment of emotions, behavior and thoughts must be multifaceted to point the way toward successful treatment,” says the ASPCA's Dr. LaFarge. In some cases judges can impose conditions that actually help the hoarder. They can require counseling, for instance, or prohibit the person from having animals.
What is clear is that prosecution alone rarely alters the behavior. “It is essential that key community agencies work together to prevent animal hoarders from harming the large number of animals they gain control over,” says LaFarge. “Social service agencies must collaborate with animal shelters and law enforcement to intervene to save the animals and then follow up with years of monitoring to prevent a recurrence. The general public needs to be educated to realize that the hoarder is not just a nice little old lady who 'loves too much.'”
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Are There Laws Against Animal Hoarding?
Animal hoarding is covered implicitly under every state's animal cruelty statute, which typically requires caretakers to provide sufficient food and water, veterinary care and a sanitary environment. Only two states, Illinois and Hawaii, currently have statutory language specifically addressing animal hoarding. With guidance from ASPCA, the Illinois Companion Animal Hoarder Act was created in 2001 to create a legal definition for “companion animal hoarder” and mandate counseling for those convicted of animal cruelty who meet the definition. Animal hoarding itself is not prohibited by the statute. Hawaii's 2008 law is the only state law specifically outlawing animal hoarding. It does not mandate psychological counseling for convicted hoarders or restrict future animal ownership. Anti-hoarding legislation has been proposed, but not passed, in several other states. See Illinois and Hawaii's hoarding laws, as well as hoarding-related bills introduced in other states.
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How Can I Help?
If you think someone you know is struggling with animal hoarding, here are some ways you can help:
- 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. “Often people don;t report hoarding situations because they are worried the hoarder will get in trouble or that the animals will get taken away,” says the 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.” Cruelty situations involving animals in New York City should be reported to the ASPCA Humane Law Enforcement department at (212) 876-7700, ext. 4450, or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are outside NYC, read our Reporting Cruelty FAQ to find out where to report cruelty in your area.
- 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.
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