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Animal Hoarding

February 21st, 2014:  Sheriff’s deputies executed a search warrant in Drakesfield, Iowa and found 322 animals, both dead and alive, all in one home.  The Animal Rescue League recovered 30 types of animals including rabbits, roosters, dogs, cats, pigeons, mice, sheep, and pigs all packed into small spaces.  There were living animals lying on top of dead animals just to have room to lie down.   Police officers used an ice pick to chip away at ice on the lawn to find frozen carcasses.  The Davis County Sheriff's Office has charged Alan Blew with 28 counts of animal neglect, livestock neglect and duty to dispose of dead bodies.

On January 11th, 2013 Memphis Police officers shot and killed a suspected animal hoarder.  Officers were trying to serve an animal cruelty-related search warrant on behalf of Memphis Animal Services.  The homeowner, Donald Moore, was armed with a gun, pointed it at one of the TACT officers, and TACT officers shot the suspect.  The suspected animal hoarder had told neighbors he'd go down fighting in order to protect his collection of pets.  28 animals, including hens, chickens, rabbits, and a dog, were removed from the home.  Moore's family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the city seeking $3 million in damages.

These stories are seriously just the tip of the iceberg. If you are an officer you know this from experience.  According to the Animal League Defense Fund up to a quarter million animals are victims of hoarders. Approximately 1,500 new animal hoarding cases are discovered annually. Thousands of animals suffer and/or die in squalid surroundings. Additionally, the ALDF indicate that in the last four years, the number of reported hoarding cases has more than doubled. In terms of the number of animals affected and the degree/duration of their suffering, hoarding is the number one animal cruelty crisis facing companion animals in communities throughout the country.

According to the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, 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
  • Persistence, despite this failure, in accumulating and controlling animals

Almost every conceivable type of animal can be a victim of hoarding. Companion pets such as dogs, cats, rodents, birds, and reptiles are the most common victims. Farm animals are also hoarded; horses, goats, and pigs. Exotic animals and wildlife are frequently victims as well. Unfortunately, hoarding consistently results in severe or fatal neglect to the animals.

Animal hoarding, sometimes referred to as "collecting," continues to struggle with public misconceptions. People may view a hoarder as the sweet cat lady down the street, someone who will save any pet. While their intentions may indeed have been good, the reality of hoarding is far from sweet, and is often quite horrific. Family members and friends are usually the first to recognize when an individual crosses over the line from loving animals to hoarding them.

The Hoarder

The most prominent psychological feature of hoarders is that pets become central to the hoarder's core identity. Many hoarders believe that their life's mission is to save animals. Hoarders frequently look at their animals as surrogate children. They believe that only they can appropriately care for them. They not only deny that there is a problem, they justify their actions. The thought of losing or euthanizing a pet is never acceptable, and can bring on intense grief reactions. Eventually, animal hoarding consumes all of the individual's money, time and emotions. Animal hoarders invariably withdraw from family, friends and society in general.

Several models have been suggested as why certain individuals hoard animals: addiction, obsession and compulsion, delusional, dementia, and attachment disorders. The addiction model suggests hoarders are very similar to alcoholics and drug addicts; they have a preoccupation with animals, deny a problem, make excuses for their behavior, isolate from society, claim persecution, and have a high recidivism rate.

The delusional model suggests that the hoarder is not in touch with reality. Hoarders are frequently paranoid of officials who are actually trying to help. Their beliefs about their special talents related to empathizing and communicating with their pets are delusional. Their perception of this situation is further evidence that they are not in touch with reality. They insist that their animals are healthy and being well cared for, despite overwhelming evidence that they are starving, sick or dying.

The attachment disorder model is used to explain why some animal hoarders prefer relationships with animals rather than other human beings. Hoarders simply see animals as less threatening than people. Individuals who grew up in chaotic or abusive homes may view their animals as a sign of personal stability and security. Hoarders frequently crave unconditional love, which may have been withheld by significant others, but is given freely by pets. Recent research indicates that animal hoarding may also be a warning sign for early stages of dementia.

Animal rescuers frequently are hoarders. They develop a compulsion to save animals from euthanasia, believing that only they can provide loving care to their “pets”. They simply cannot turn any animal away. When an average citizen doesn't want to place their pet in a shelter, they bring it to the sweet cat lady down the street. Hoarders frequently work within the network of organizations concerned about the welfare of animals. This aspect of hoarding behavior is common among no-kill shelters. The thought of euthanizing a pet, peacefully and painlessly, is terrifying. Instead, they maintain that animals are better off being warehoused for years, even under deplorable conditions.

Even worse is the exploitive hoarder who acquires animals for their own needs, most frequently financial. This type of hoarder is indifferent to the harm or death of any animal. Examples are those who acquire mass numbers of animals for breeding or for sales profit.

Hoarding is also a common characteristic in individuals who have an obsessive compulsive disorder; over 80% of animal hoarders also hoard inanimate objects.

A Fate Worse Than Death

Overcrowded and filthy conditions facilitate the transmission of worms, fleas, mange, ear mites, upper respiratory infections, parvo, distemper, and even rabies from one hoarded animal to another. Most hoarded animals never receive veterinary care. They are rarely spayed or neutered, further escalating the problems. Wounds and fractures are seldom treated appropriately. Companion pets that are ignored may develop aggressive behaviors or produce feral offspring.

The Laws, Charges, and Prosecution of Animal Hoarders

Tragically, conditions have to become extreme before law enforcement officials can intervene. Animal hoarders do not willingly open their doors to officers. Officers must demonstrate probable cause to obtain a warrant to search the home or facility.

The earlier the intervention in an animal hoarding situation, the better; otherwise the problem will grow and grow for years. About 60% of animal hoarding cases are brought to the attention of authorities by neighbors who make complaints of odors, barking dogs, rodent or insect infestations, and unsanitary conditions. Law enforcement officers may be called to check on the welfare of a hoarder by a friend or family member. You should suspect animal hoarding if the subject in question refuses to allow you into their home or facility. Warning signs of hoarding in no-kill shelters include operators who refuse to discuss the number of animals in custody, who actively solicit for animals, or continue to accept animals regardless of their current population.

All states have animal cruelty laws that stipulate minimal care standards; food, shelter, veterinary care, and sanitary conditions. Legislation has been enacted in a few states specifically addressing animal hoarding. State laws vary as to what number of pets constitutes animal hoarding. Typically animal hoarding charges are misdemeanors.  The International Veterinary Forensics Sciences Association has a close alliance with the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and is an excellent resource regarding evidence collection at animal hoarding scenes. The Animal Legal Defense Fund has staff attorneys who are able to consult with prosecutors about how to approach any case of animal abuse.

Jail time is often part of the sentencing process of an animal hoarder. An extended probation period is ideal to allow a hoarder an opportunity to establish new patterns of behavior. A condition of probation must include an agreement by the hoarder to periodic unannounced visits from animal control and/or probation officers to ensure compliance. Since the recidivism rate is about 100%, the Humane Society also recommends that these individuals be restricted to owning a small number of spayed or neutered animals (two is a reasonable number). Hoarders should also be prohibited from having animals on any other property they own as well. Additionally, they should be barred from performing community service around animals, especially in an animal shelter. Probation should also include making sure that any pet has an identification chip implanted, and that veterinary care is being provided. The Humane Society recommends that convicted animal hoarders be sentenced to mandatory psychological evaluation and treatment.

Treatment Options

Although what causes individuals to hoard animals is still poorly understood, evidence suggests that hoarders do exhibit symptoms of mental illness. A combination of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy and medications used to treat anxiety disorders may be of some value. Unfortunately, the success rate for treating animal hoarding is low.

One More Thing You Can Do…

…adopt a rescue animal and make it a part of your family.  The benefits of being a responsible pet owner are awesome.