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Rescued from Squalor: Part 3

A house full of dogs saved by The HSUS and partnering organizations provides a glimpse into the delusional world of animal hoarders

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

  • View a PDF of this story here. The HSUS

  • Some dogs in the Mississippi home had been breeding, exacerbating an already overcrowded situation with the addition of new puppies. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • Mange had caused many dogs to lose their fur and scratch themselves raw in their attempts to stop the itching. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • HSUS field responder Rowdy Shaw and a staff member from the Mississippi Animal Rescue League carry armloads of puppies away from the filthy home where they were found. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • This dog was rescued from the muck in Mississippi and traveled north to receive medical treatment and rehabilitation from the Washington Animal Rescue League in the nation's capital. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

  • The same dog after arriving at the Washington Animal Rescue League. Large-scale rescues would not be possible without assistance from groups that take in the animals, treat them, and place them with new families. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

All Too Common

While this case seems extreme, it’s not atypical. And it’s the second time in less than a week that HSUS responders have been called to assist in a hoarding case. By the time they reach Mississippi, they’ve already been on the road for days, driving here directly from Tennessee, where they helped remove 120 cats from a home in similar conditions.

According to the authors of the new book Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, authorities identify between 700 and 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding nationwide each year. “Because only the most severe cases get reported,” write Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost and Boston University School of Social Work dean and professor Gail Steketee, “this is undoubtedly an underestimate.”

Frost and Steketee describe the phenomenon as a severe version of a more general object-hoarding mentality. From their research, they’ve found most animal hoarders “are female, well over forty years old, and single, widowed, or divorced. Cats and dogs are the most frequent animals hoarded, and the numbers vary widely but average around forty, with a few cases of well over one hundred. In about 80 percent of cases, dead, dying, or diseased animals can be found on the premises.”

Many people who hoard inanimate objects collect things that others wouldn’t see as particularly valuable: newspapers piled into stacks that fill rooms, CDs, books, canned goods, clothing, stuffed toys, small plastic containers—all of it justified by some need the hoarder cannot always articulate, but which has come to define his existence. Adam Parascandola, director of animal cruelty issues for The HSUS’s Animal Cruelty and Fighting Campaign, recalls a case from a previous job when he seized neglected cats from a home so overwhelmed with junk that the property was condemned and the owner forced to move. When Parascandola returned to check the humane traps he had set to catch the cats hiding around the house, the owner was there, packing garbage into bags—not to throw away, but to carry to her new residence. “It was literally, like, trash,” he says. “We tried to tell her, ‘That’s trash; you don’t need to take that to your new place,’ but she just didn’t understand.”

But it’s a third category—mission-driven animal hoarders—that makes up the majority of cases, write Frost and Steketee. Their behavior represents “an attempt to love that winds up destroying its target.”

Animal hoarders, on the other hand, don’t just collect trash. They collect lives—often animals who need help, who’ve been abandoned or given up at shelters and need a caregiver. But hoarders have a blindness that keeps them from recognizing when their own need to collect crosses a line, when their resources can’t provide for the number of pets they’ve taken in. In cases like the one in Preston, many hoarders also fail to spay or neuter the animals they have—leading to more breeding and ever-escalating pressure on scant space, time, and money.

The psychology of hoarding has often been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder, but more recent research indicates it’s not clear where hoarding falls in a spectrum of possible pathologies.

“The trend over the past two decades has been to more readily label hoarding as a disease,” writes Northeastern University sociology professor Arnold Arluke in Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs. But, he adds, “attempts to do so have been disappointing because many hoarders do not fit so neatly into various diagnostic labels.” Hoarders’ failure to recognize the filth of their surroundings or the suffering of their animals supports the theory that they are delusional. Their inability to stop harmful behavior mirrors the psychology of addiction. The traumatic or neglectful childhoods experienced by many hoarders push them to trust animals more than people—a way of thinking common to attachment disorders.

And while the typical image of an obsessive-compulsive hand-washer may seem hard to align with the squalor of hoarders’ homes, many of those homes contain, among the chaos, signs of desperate attempts to maintain order. HSUS field responder Rowdy Shaw recalls one hoarder’s home where “downstairs, there were thousands and thousands of Mountain Dew cans, but then upstairs, she had on the wall this nice, long wooden rack of all her cassette tapes, each still wrapped in the original plastic and all alphabetized,” he says. “It’s very strange that you can live in urine and feces up to the wall outlets, and you can’t even breathe in the house, but you find these signs” of attempted organization.

Some hoarders are regular multiple-pet owners who become overwhelmed due to unexpected changes—loss of a job, for example—while others are exploiters, whose psychological model runs closer to those we call sociopaths. But it’s a third category—mission-driven animal hoarders—that makes up the majority of cases, write Frost and Steketee. Their behavior represents “an attempt to love that winds up destroying its target.”

These hoarders often feel they have a special connection to animals. The irony often seems like a perverse joke to the emergency responders and shelter staff called in to save animals from people who, even as dead cats and dogs are being carried from their homes, still maintain their belief that they alone know what’s best for them.

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