The following is my best friend’s story. She has written several pieces about her life with cats and rescuing cats from a variety of situations. She prefers to remain anonymous. Everyone’s name has been changed, but I can verify that her stories are true.
I know a hoarder. Not a collector or an “eccentric” person, but a real live TLC documentary-style hoarder. She and her husband engage in hoarding behavior, he with tools, equipment, auto parts and old broken electronics. Hers consists of clothes, family “heirlooms,” holiday decorations and animals. A LOT of animals — and the number has increased alarmingly during the past few years.
They share a dark, ramshackle house on several acres of land, right off a major highway that routinely kills the denizens of her hoard, but still, the numbers invariably increase year after year, as she picks up more unfortunates, bringing them back to the hoard, to “rescue.”
I’ve always hesitated to use the word “rescue,” even before meeting this woman, who we can call Patty. It implies that you have saved an animal from some awful fate, that you are an angel of aid and succor for some lost little soul. But we can’t keep them all, and many of these “rescues,” particularly in rural areas with no support from any agency, would more honestly be labeled as interventions, often ending in the death of whomever it is we’ve acted in the benefit of — but I digress.
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Currently, Patty has hamsters, birds, dogs, fish, mice and, most of all, cats, under her care. Cages line every windowless, heaped space; their little eyes stare out at me from the dusty gloom. After my first trip into her home, which I know was not easy for her to allow, I sat weeping in my car on the side of the road. It was their eyes. Even now I can see them in my mind, and it brings water to my eyes.
“They’ve been keeping me up all night, scratching, the little loves!” she says to me with an awkward laugh. I look over the pack of nervous cats and find they are literally festooned with fleas. There are cats on every surface. Cats poised atop heaps of trash, cats in the laundry, cats on every filthy stair.
My immediate response was delight. “I can fix this!” I cry, then drive the hour to my home, gathering up all the ampules of Advantage and Frontline I can find; it’s not enough. Up to the ATM to check my balance, I use the grocery allowance to get more from the local pet store. It’s terribly overpriced, you can do much better online, but the thought of leaving them to pace and scratch and yowl for another night is too much to bear. All my intervention work is done out of pocket, and unfortunately there will always be more fleas than dollars. I’ve done this so often that there is no longer a need to measure, I carry several syringes with black marks for different weights, and dispense by feel.
Back to Patty’s house, now in full darkness. As I come up the driveway, a waifishly thin cat with sagging teats runs over to greet me. She gets the first dose, then I follow her back to the house and go through the entire colony, quick jabs to the back of the neck until my hands are numb. I make casual offers, while she follows me anxiously through the piles of her treasures, to get them into the low cost spay and neuter program I already visit for feral colony management. To take pictures and put some on Craigslist, to try and find homes. To apply for food donations with a faraway shelter.
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There are no shelters within a hundred miles where they won’t be killed, particularly these shy, scabby kids. She gently refuses any further help. She’s already very uncomfortable with the flea treatment having been provided for free. She can’t tolerate the idea of charity, she says, but having been a hoarder myself, I know the truth is far more complicated. Leaving them there, in the squalor, was more difficult than I can explain.
The phone rings the next morning. “It’s a miracle!” Patty exclaims, “They’ve been asleep since about half an hour after you left!” Of course they have, I think; they are exhausted from pacing and scratching and chewing themselves. “That’s wonderful!” I reply, trying to sound upbeat and casual.
She forces me to take five dollars for the treatment, and I accept under the condition that she permit me to treat them every 30 days. She gratefully accepted, but when I broached the subject of neutering, or rehoming, she politely demurred, and I didn’t dare to push any further, possibly alienating her and causing the hoard to lose their only chance of flea treatment. They all have names, they are all sources of comfort for her, but she is desperately poor and in way, way over her head.
I catch myself thinking about her and the brood, usually when I’m supposed to be sleeping. I keep seeing those wary, somehow desperate eyes, peering out at me from in and around every heap of trash. I haven’t given up on pushing Patty, but it is a painfully slow process, with no end in sight.
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Is anyone else in a similar situation, or have you ever been? Local animal authorities are no help — we live in an isolated area, and their only solution is to gas every single animal.
Hoarding doesn’t happen overnight. If you know someone who is experiencing difficulty letting go of things, even if they don’t appear in immediate danger of being overwhelmed, talk, and ask. Tell them you are worried, tell them how much you care. Offer your time, support and friendship. Whether it’s help with animal care, housecleaning, organization, or even just a weekly lunch date, these little connections can make a real difference in the life of a person who is in crisis, and help them to stay grounded in reality. You can also contact organizers, life coaches, therapists and support groups in your area for additional resources.
I know mine is a delicate situation, but I’d like to hear your suggestions. Have you ever been involved in something like this? How did you handle it? Let me know in the comments.
Photo: Baby stray cats by Shutterstock