Something inexplicable happens to an astounding 25 percent of all animal rescuers and animal shelter operators. Somewhere along the line, they just go overboard. Without even realizing it, they slip quietly and irrevocably to the Dark Side. They become animal hoarders.
They don’t mean to do it. If asked, they’d deny it. They simply don’t realize or won’t accept that it has happened. How can this be true? Mental illness takes many forms and this is one.
The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that there are up to 6,000 new cases of animal hoarding every year, affecting 250,000 animals.
What‘s Behind Animal Hoarding?
“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,” Dr. Randall Lockwood, ASPCA Senior Vice President, Forensic Sciences and Anti-cruelty Projects says on ASPCA’s website. “They have no real perception of the harm they’re doing to the animals.”
That harm is devastatingly real. Hoarders delude themselves into believing no one can match the “superior” level of love and care they give to their animals. This can be particularly true for animal rescuers who cross the line. The reality of their situation can be horrific.
News stories abound describing the conditions in hoarders’ homes and facilities. Authorities find rotting animal carcasses, starving dogs and cats packed into cages, overwhelming decay and stink, trash piled everywhere, infestations of fleas, rampant disease, mounds of feces and worse.
“Being kept by a hoarder is a slow kind of death for the animal,” said Dr. Lockwood. “Actually, it can be a fate worse than death.”
See one example of what animal hoarding looks like here:
How can hoarders and those around them not see what’s really going on? The answer is complex. According to the ASPCA:
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.
How to Identify an Animal Hoarder and How to Help
According to the Humane Society of the United States, here’s the combination to watch for if you’re wondering if someone you know may be an animal hoarder:
- Too many animals (more pets than are typical for most people)
- Inability to adequately feed, shelter, clean and provide veterinary care for them
- Denial, in the face of all this, that there’s a problem and that it is affecting the animals’ welfare
Can someone have 25 cats and appropriately feed, house and provide adequate medical care for all of them? Certainly, and if so, she’s not a hoarder. She’s just a “crazy cat person” or perhaps a busy rescue organization.
Conversely, if someone has a deep-seated need to help every homeless or rescue animal he can find, he may have a problem. If he feels no one else can do what he does for the animals, if he seems not to be aware of deteriorating conditions and poor animal health, or if he has continuing excuses for why there’s an ongoing lack of decent care, ring those warning bells.
Hoarders of all types tend to have certain qualities in common. Many are depressed. Some have dementia. Others suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder or attachment disorders. Often, a hoarder will have suffered some traumatic loss and is collecting animals as a way of coping, even if he doesn’t realize what he’s doing.
Sadly, even supposed “rescue organizations” can end up as covers for hoarders. Don’t let a website and official non-profit status fool you. If a “rescue group” doesn’t let you see where they keep their animals, doesn’t know or won’t say how many animals they have, takes in every animal but rarely seems to adopt any back out, there’s probably a problem.
If you suspect a hoarding situation, do something. Don’t let fear of getting a “nice person” in trouble stop you if the signs of hoarding are inescapable. The animals need your help. Call your local humane society or animal control.
“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,” said Allison Cardona, ASPCA’s 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.”
Hoarders can and should get psychological help, but unfortunately it’s a difficult problem to overcome. The recidivism rate for hoarding is estimated at almost 100 percent. If you know a hoarder and want to help, offer your support while doing what’s necessary to get the animals out of that situation. That’s the win-win end result for everyone.
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