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Should You Recognize the Bizarre Actions of These Animal "Lovers"?

Six Pet DogsThe state of Vermont has introduced House Bill 371 to criminalize animal hoarding and impose penalties on lawbreakers.

According to Veterinary Practice News, the bill defines an animal hoarder as someone who:

  • Possesses five or more animals;
  • Fails to provide adequate food, water, shelter, rest, sanitation, or necessary medical attention or transports an animal in overcrowded vehicles;
  • Keeps the animals in a severely overcrowded environment; and
  • Displays an inability to recognize or understand the nature of or has a reckless disregard for the conditions under which the animals are living and the deleterious impact they have on the animals’ health and well-being.

Vermont defines animals as ‘all living sentient creatures, not human beings.’ This means House Bill 371 addresses not just dogs and cats, but any type of animal that has the potential to be hoarded.

Under the law if passed, hoarders would be charged with animal cruelty and could spend a year in jail, pay a $2,000 fine, or both. Harsher penalties would apply to repeat offenders.

The law would give ‘humane officers’ authority to take an animal without a search warrant under certain circumstances involving the immediate health or safety of the animal. Humane officers would include:

  • Law enforcement officers, auxiliary state police officers, deputy game wardens, humane society officers/employees/agents
  • Animal control officers
  • Any officer authorized to serve criminal process
Dr. Becker's Comments:

According to the ASPCA, it is estimated there are 900 to 2,000 new cases of hoarding each year in the U.S., involving a quarter million animal victims across several species. Hoarders collect cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and farm animals.

According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), in the last four years the number of reported hoarding cases has more than doubled. And when it comes to the number of animals involved and the intensity and duration of their suffering, the ALDF asserts that “… hoarding is the number one animal cruelty crisis facing companion animals in communities throughout the country.”

Animal Hoarding Defined

An animal hoarder is someone who practices the pathological accumulation of animals and meets the following general criteria as described in a 1999 study published by the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine:

  • Has more than the typical number of companion animals
  • Does not provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter or vet care, which results in the illness and death of animals from starvation, infectious disease and untreated injuries or medical issues
  • Is in denial about the situation and its impact on the animals, the home, and other family members
  • Persists in spite of everything in accumulating animals 

According to the ALDF:

Animal victims of hoarders typically suffer horribly as a result [of the hoarding situation], and, unlike most other forms of companion animal cruelty, their misery can go on for years. The sometimes hundreds of dog or cat victims of a single hoarder generally show signs of abuse such as severe malnutrition, untreated medical conditions including open sores, cancers, and advanced dental and eye diseases, and severe psychological distress.

Many hoarded animals live covered in their own waste, among the remains of dead animals. Death is often an agonizingly slow process brought on by years of neglect. Tragically, many rescued hoarded animals are simply too far gone and must be euthanized to avoid further suffering.

According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center of Michigan State University College of Law, animal hoarding is a misunderstood phenomenon. The media tends to portray hoarding situations from an emotional perspective rather than depicting the raw, deeply disturbing reality.

Is There a ‘Typical’ Hoarder, and What Causes the Behavior?

The stereotypical hoarder is represented by the example of the ‘Crazy Cat Lady,’ but this profile actually isn’t too far off the mark. The most frequent hoarders are older, single females. About 75 percent of hoarders are women.

However, hoarders can also be male, and the problem is seen in a wide range of ages and across all socio-economic backgrounds.

Hoarders don’t accumulate animals for the reasons you might think. Says 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."

Early research into animal hoarding seemed to indicate it was associated with an obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, more recent studies are pointing in the direction of attachment and personality disorders, paranoia, delusional thinking, depression and other mental illnesses as a basis for the behavior.

Some hoarders begin the behavior after a traumatic event in their lives; others view themselves as ‘rescuers’ of homeless animals.

Due in part to the misguided perception society holds about animal hoarders, many are adept at gaining sympathy and convincing others they are in control of the situation.

Public perception is often that police and animal rescue groups are unduly harsh with ‘animal lovers’ who are hoarders. Friends, family and neighbors often defend hoarders as well-intentioned ‘animal lovers.’

Everyone involved must learn to look past the human’s motivations long enough to see the real victims, the animals, and the cruelty they are enduring at the hands of the hoarder.

Most hoarders seem intelligent and believe they are helping their animals, no matter how horrendous the situation they live in may be. They argue that any home is better than leaving an animal on the street.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. 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."

Hoarding vs. Rescuing/Sheltering: An Important Distinction

Animal hoarding is the result of some form of psychological impairment. And although a case of hoarding may begin as a desire to save animals, at some point the needs of the animals take a back seat to the hoarder’s need for control.

According to The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) at Tufts:

The resulting compulsive caregiving is pursued to fullfill unmet human needs, while the real needs of the animals are ignored or disregarded. Sometimes hoarders act as individuals, and other times they masquerade as animal rescue activities. They should never be confused for these legitimate and worthwhile efforts.

Any legitimate shelter, rescue or sanctuary puts the needs of the animals first, recognizes when capacity to provide care is exceeded, and takes the required steps (stopping intake, increasing adoption, increasing staff or resources) in order to provide proper care.

According to the ASPCA, recent research shows a growing number of hoarders are setting up as ‘rescue shelters’ with 501(c)(3) non-profit status. They are using the Internet to solicit for animals for hoarding purposes.

For this reason, you should always do a little digging before you hand over an animal to a rescue group. A nice website doesn’t rule out involvement by a hoarder.

Signs of a hoarding rather than a rescue situation include:

  • Animals are picked up at a remote location like a parking lot, street corner or public park rather than dropped off at the rescue facility
  • No access for visitors to the location where animals are housed
  • The group does not disclose how many animals are in its care
  • ‘Rescued’ animals are rarely, if ever, re-homed
  • Animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals

Is Criminal Prosecution of Hoarders the Solution?

Very few states have specific animal hoarding laws, but the subject is covered implicitly in the animal cruelty statute for each state.

Only Hawaii and Illinois have statutes specifically addressing hoarding. The Illinois Companion Animal Hoarder Act defines a ‘companion animal hoarder’ and mandates counseling for anyone convicted of animal cruelty who meets the definition. However, animal hoarding itself is not outlawed by the statute.

Hawaii is the only state at this writing that specifically outlaws the practice. Unfortunately, it does not mandate psychological counseling for persons convicted of the offense of hoarding, nor does it restrict future animal ownership for offenders.

Studies indicate animal hoarders forced to give up their animals have a 100 percent recidivism rate without psychological counseling. According to the ASPCA’s Dr. Lockwood, “Hoarders are like drug addicts—you can’t cure them, you can only prevent relapses.”

“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 Dr. Stephanie LaFarge, ASPCA Senior Director of Counseling Services.

Enlightened judges sentencing hoarders can help by requiring counseling and prohibiting the person from having animals in the future.

Prosecution by itself rarely if ever changes the behavior of an animal hoarder. According to Dr. LaFarge:

“It is essential that key community agencies work together to prevent animal hoarders from harming the large number of animals they gain control over. 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.'”

How You Can Help

  • Educate others about the reality of animal hoarding vs. the media portrayal and other romanticized notions of hoarders as ‘animal lovers.’
  • If you know of or suspect an animal hoarding situation, call your local humane law enforcement department, police department, animal shelter, animal welfare group or veterinarian. This is a difficult step for many people because they feel sympathy for the hoarder. Try to look past the hoarder to the mistreated animals. Their needs must come first.
  • If you know a hoarder personally, assure that person it’s okay to accept help and that the animals are in urgent need of care.
  • Volunteer to help at the local animal shelter. You can also volunteer to help the hoarder care for any animals that aren’t removed.
  • Support local legislation to appropriately penalize and treat animal hoarders.

+ Sources and References