In the past three days, as reported by Cleveland’s Channel 8, FOX News, two separate cases of animal hoarding were discovered; one in Willoughby and the other in Ashtabula Township. The hoarding case in Willoughby involved 88 animals and an estimated 32 dogs were discovered at a home in Ashtabula Township. While the original intentions surrounding the two animal hoarders varied, the reality of suffering by over a hundred dogs and cats is the same – one of their neglect, poor medical care, poor nutrition and little to no socialization. In both cases, the local animal welfare group was shouldered with the responsibility of addressing the physical and mental health needs of the abused and neglected animals. That both agencies operate as non-profit organizations on shoe-string budgets should be recognized as a strain on operations.
Media reports of the case in Willoughby demonstrate that the animal hoarder had identified themselves as a “rescuer” operating under the moniker of “Western Reserve Humane Society”. The individual involved in the Willoughby hoarding case had taken in 85 cats and 3 dogs claiming to be a rescue group. The animals were found to be forced to live in unsanitary, horrendous conditions representing a case of extreme neglect. Cats were found to be very ill caged in cramped conditions with little human interaction.
The Ashtabula Township hoarding case started off differently. Originally a “backyard breeder”, the local Animal Protective League became aware that a number of puppies that had been adopted had become gravely ill. It was later learned that the person became overwhelmed with the number of dogs on the property. Due to new litters of dogs being born (one dog had just had a litter of puppies and another was pregnant when the APL was brought in) the number of dogs kept multiplying. In December, the APL received 16 dogs that required immediate medical care due to sarcoptic mange. Because of limited resources – including shelter space and access to veterinary care – only the most serious medical cases were surrendered to the shelter initially. More dogs would trickle in, 5 or so at a time, to the shelter as dogs that had been successfully treated for mange were placed up for adoption.
The research on animal hoarder describes 3 different types of hoarders: the Overwhelmed Caregiver, the Rescuer and the Exploiter. Each of these hoarder types will be described. While the dynamics differ, the result is the same: animal suffering. As outlined in a previous article (23 August 2010), the phenomenon of “animal hoarding” was first described by Gary Patronek in a Public Health Reports publication (1999). Prior to this publication, those in the field of animal sheltering had called the practice “animal collecting”. Because of its similarity to pathological hoarding of objects, the term “animal hoarder” seemed to be more appropriate.
An animal hoarder is someone who “accumulates a large number of animals, fails to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care, fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals and fails to act on the negative effect of the collection on their own health and well-being and that of other household members” (Patronek 1999). The prevalence of animal hoarders is estimated to be between 3000 and 5000 in the United States with more than a quarter million of animals who are the victims of hoarders. The recidivism rate, without intensive professional help, is believed to be 100%.
The Overwhelmed Caregiver is the person who started with a pet or two and through largely passive acquisition, found themselves responsible for too many pets that they can properly care for. Passive acquisition means that others may “dump” pets – such as cats – at their home knowing that the person will take care of them. Because they passively acquire pets, there appears to be some awareness of what they are doing. Problems in caring for the increasing number of animals is often triggered by a change in circumstances whereby the individual is unable to effectively problem solve. Often times socially isolated, these individuals often do not have much contact with authorities. The challenge for a therapeutic approach in addressing the problem is that self-esteem is often linked to the individual’s role as a “caregiver”.
The Rescuer Hoarder is the person who started out “rescuing” abandoned pets with the original intent of finding the pets a new home. However, at some point, the rescuer no longer seeks to find homes for the pet but rather keeps them. They fear that the animal will be euthanized unless they rescue them leads the individual to believe they are on a mission. This mission becomes a compulsion. While some rescuers actively seek out death-row (or red-listed) dogs or cats, they may also passively acquire them. For example, family or friends may approach the individual knowing that they “won’t say ‘no’” should there be a pet that needs to be rehomed or face an unknown fate at an animal shelter. Because others know that the person will feel compelled to “rescue” the animal from an uncertain fate, rescuer hoarders often have an extensive network of enablers.
The Exploiter Hoarder is the person who uses a domestic pet for money-making purposes. Because they lack empathy for both people and for animals, and are indifferent to the harm that they are causing the pets, they are often described as having sociopathic characteristics. Manipulative and cunning, they reject the concerns expressed by outsiders, lack remorse but often display charm, particularly in their self-proclaimed role of expert.
Ohio’s weak laws protecting companion animals has created an environment that allows animal hoarding to go unchecked. Backyard breeders or more formalized “puppy mill” operations are allowed to exist with little or no oversight. Those who are rescuing or providing care for the many unwanted pets are offered too few resources to spay/neuter the animals currently in their care allowing the problem of too many pets to continue unabated. And, in addition to other financial considerations, the tax code, which does not allow pet care expenses to be a tax-deductible expense, offers no incentive to already tax-burdened homeowners of ensuring a higher standard of veterinary care. The failure of the HAPPY ACT to provide some relief to pet owners was a loss that pet owners may not have even realized was a possibility.
Reference: Gary J. Patronek. 1999. Hoarding of Animals: an Unrecognized Public Health Problem in a Difficult-to-Study Population. Public Health Report 114:81-87.
Disclosure: The "Dr. Irene Fiala", Vice President of the Ashtabula County Animal Protective League is the "one and the same" as the writer of this article.