Andrew grows sad at the prospect of visiting his mom. She recently celebrated her ninety-fifth birthday. He sees little to celebrate. He recalls the last time he visited her. The stench assaulted his nose the minute the front door was opened. He could barely breathe. Inside the house the stains spreading out over the carpet, up the walls, and the piles of dried cat feces scattered on the floor were difficult to ignore.
Andrew’s mother is a collector. She doesn’t collect Barbies, or Beanie Babies. She collects cats. Several years ago, feeling sorry for the homeless cats showing up at her door, she cut a jagged hole in the screen above her sink allowing the cats’ easier access. They came in nightly, encouraged by dishes of leftovers placed on the counters. She decided they were all her “pets.” She filled the bathtub up with kitty litter, and began to take sponge baths in the kitchen.
Cat urine is quite caustic. The urine did its damage, eating away at the paint and the carpet. As bacteria formed and pooled underneath the carpet, the urine worked through the linoleum and rotted out the baseboards. Tomcats would come and spray on the old heater (that seemed to always be on) adding to the overwhelming stench.
The outside, littered with half-empty plastic containers (most of which contained moldy food) effectively blocked off the path to the back door. Andrew, dismayed and disgusted, realized that his once well-educated mother had now won the distinction of the title “Crazy Cat Lady”.
Andrew’s story is hardly unique. This situation plays out repeatedly in towns and cities all over the United States. Newspaper reporters write about appalling conditions discovered in homes, as well as in some animal rescue facilities. Are these just cases of good intentions somehow becoming misguided?
In an article by Lynn Tryba, “Trash Menagerie: The Disturbing World of Animal Hoarders”, Psychology Today, December 2002, pg. 22. She quotes an expert in this field.
“There appear to be more similarities than differences between OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) hoarding and animal hoarding,” says Dr. Gary Patronek, who is also an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at Tufts. The interaction between an animal and a person just adds a level of intensity that doesn’t exist with a pile of newspapers.
Animal hoarders may threaten to kill themselves or others if their animals are removed. They use the animals to fulfill their emotional needs, but at the same time, they’re denying the animals’ needs, says Patronek.”
Pets’ needs are fairly basic. They are: shelter, food, water, vet care and love. When a hoarder comes into the picture her needs are more deep-seated overshadowing the needs of the animals. The hoarder keeps collecting the animals believing she’s doing the right thing.
Since these cats are strays, most of the cats are not spayed or neutered, so breeding occurs, and then inbreeding starts resulting in litters of kittens born with birth defects or worse. With so much food being left around, territorial disputes begin and fights breakout. Without proper veterinary intervention many of the cats die painful and often unnecessary deaths.
The reality of the hoarder’s world starts when the truth becomes known and the home is raided. Investigators are horrified to find carcasses and piles of feces. Often when background checks are run, evidence shows that the hoarder has been either abused or neglected. The animals effectively supply the love and the needs of the person hoarding them.
In an HARC study (Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium), a joint venture of the Massachusetts SPCA and schools including Harvard Medical School and Tufts University: seventy-one suspected hoarders were surveyed and observed. The most common animal being hoarded turned out to be cats, followed by dogs, and then birds. The homes were discovered to be filthy with papers, books and debris blocking out most of the living spaces.
Experts estimate there are at least 700 new cases of hoarding reported every year in the United States. According to Dr. Gary Patronek, the animal hoarder becomes a repeat offender. “The drive to collect these animals is so overpowering there is almost always 100% recidivism.”
There are clear warning signs pointing to hoarders. The amount of animals being collected does not define a hoarder. What determines a hoarder lies in the condition of those animals. Most hoarders are highly intelligent with a knack of being able to gain sympathy. The warning signs to watch out for are:
The amount of animals under their care keeps changing. New ones come in and old ones vanish. The animals coats are dull. Eyes washed out in illness, claws overgrown. The house retains more than just the whiff of litter box odor. There are noticeable stains on the carpet, upholstery and walls. The person?s skin is pallid, of an unnatural hue brought about by the constant contact of the stench of decay. You are prevented from gaining access to the whole house.
If you suspect someone might be a hoarder, the responsible move would be to call your local Environmental Health Department. They will help direct your call. Failure to report someone would not only endanger the animals under their care but the health of the hoarder as well.
If you rescue animals, do so responsibly. Know your limits, both financially and emotionally. Spay and neuter every pet under your care. Understand there are far too many strays and ferals “out there” that need rescuing. When the quality of care of your felines suffers because you can no longer afford to pay for nutritional food for your cats, or proper vet visits that is when you need to re-examine your life and make changes…
Andrew can visit his mom now. He made that important phone call awhile back. His mom has since been placed in the care of professionals, The one-hundred and fifty-six feral cats that were trapped, Andrew had found out were humanely destroyed. Andrew had heard that as they escorted his mom out of her house, she kept muttering “I was only trying to help.”
There’s the problem, a true hoarder never believes they are hoarding. They simply believe they are helping.