By Tanya Silverman
Photo by Alisha Vargas.
No matter how many cats, dogs, rabbits, ferrets, or potbelly pigs they own, conscientious pet owners provide their companion animals with food and water in a sanitary setting, as well as routine veterinary check-ups. However, some people love having furry, feathery, and scaly friends much more than the responsibilities that come along with them.
Situations where owners keep pets without proper care is considered animal negligence; but in extreme cases these people may even practice animal hoarding.
Animal hoarding, by definition, is holding more than an average number of companion animals and failing to provide them with a safe and healthy environment. People who do this, deny their failure to offer adequate conditions and persist to keep and accumulate many animals. Animal hoarders can be hard to recognize, because they might look completely ordinary in public, showing no signs of what is going on in their home. Authorities have to respond to animal hoarding cases upon complaint.
Roy Gross, the Chief Executive Director of the Suffolk County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Long Island, New York, recalls a few extreme instances of animal hoarding that he has confronted. One particular case began when people called the police because they thought their neighbor had died in his apartment. But there was no dead person; the tenant, who was alive, was not even living in there.
“His house was filled with cats, so he had no room for himself,” Gross says of the tenant. “He slept in the woods and kept his cats in the house.”
On another occasion, the Suffolk County SPCA was alerted to investigate a man’s home when there were suspicions of animal abuse.
“When we came to the door, he was wrapped in tin foil. He had tin foil on his head, on his arms; his windows had tin foil on them,” Gross describes. “He said his cats were dying.”
When they looked around the apartment to find out what this meant, things got even more surprising.
“He had dead cats stored, mummified, in shoe boxes, wrapped in tin foil.” This hoarder also had a system in place for storing them “in alphabetical order, stacked in the closet” and “under the bed.” After autopsies were performed, the lab determined that the cats had died of starvation.
Cats are commonly hoarded animals, which is especially problematic because such conditions can foster feline leukemia and FIV that could also spread rapidly. Nevertheless, cats are not the only animals that suffer such abuses; the Suffolk County SPCA just had a case where people had somehow held 140 dogs in their house. These upsetting scenarios have involved almost any creature imaginable.
“There was a young bull walking around in the living room,” says Gross of one case. These respective living quarters also held rats, gerbils, cats, dogs, and even “had pigeons flying around.”
It is hard to imagine how people live in homes when they hoard animals. In addition to the many living (and deceased) pets, these places sometimes have fleas, mites, and mice, crammed around floors and furniture stacked with garbage, urine, and excrement.
“You can’t even walk into a lot of these houses,” says Gross. “You need a breathing apparatus for the smell, plus the floor’s caving in.”
While they have faced many cases, animal hoarding is certainly not the main focus of the Suffolk County SPCA. They handle other instances of animal negligence, perform a multitude of educational presentations on how to treat pets properly and report abuse, and keep up a spay/neuter program. Gross also stresses that this specific part of New York State does not hold a higher concentration of animal hoarding than other places, it’s just more frequently reported.
As animal hoarding is an issue all over the country, it means that SPCA branches in many different regions also face this problem.
The San Francisco SPCA does not have an animal control unit that goes out and responds to hoarding houses around the Bay Area, but is responsible for sheltering animals that have been released. Lots of cats have been taken to the SF SPCA facility from assorted hoarding situations, in order to be rehabilitated and adopted.
This is quite a challenging task for caretakers to handle. Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, Co-President of the SF SPCA, describes the multitude of problems that rescued felines harbor, including “physical impairments,” “multiple types of diseases,” and a “lack of social interaction.”
She also describes the difficulty of transitioning them to a new environment:
“The lack of cleanliness is tough to get over… we have to get them back to using a litter box, because most of these hoarding houses are so filthy, the cats have no opportunity to display their fastidious nature.”
Socializing dogs raised in hoarding homes can be challenging too as they typically have a difficult time trusting people and adjusting to new environments.
Dr. Scarlett says that there has also been an increase in discovering false sanctuaries, or places that may identify as animal shelters, but are actually hoarding situations. She encourages people who need to give up their pet to actually visit the place and see it more than once, as these psuedo-rescue facilities make up about 25 percent of hoarding situations.
Apart from just the unfortunate conditions and realities for animals, animal hoarders as people suffer from a complex mental disorder, and effective therapy for this condition is still in early development. Another problem is that after animal hoarders are discovered and the many pets are removed, these people may simply relapse and set up similar situations. Hopefully, there will be further research to treat and rehabilitate animal hoarders to ensure the future health and safety for both these people and their pets.