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July 15, 2010

Rescued from Squalor: Part 5

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

The Prosecution Problem

For the animals, it’s the start of a new life. But for the people who worked so hard to save them, it’s not the end of the case. Despite copious evidence provided by the onsite team and by Sheriff Moore’s office, at press time—some three months after the seizure—the local prosecutor had not yet brought cruelty charges, says Parascandola.

This outcome is far too frequent, often stemming from the pity that prosecutors and law enforcement feel for people who are sometimes portrayed—and who may present themselves—as confused but well-meaning motherly types who just loved animals too much.

Under criminal law, a perpetrator’s intent is significant. Establishing intent to commit a crime typically involves proving someone knowingly took actions that would result in an illegal outcome.

In the case of hoarders, the issue of intent is muddy at best. A reasonable person can foresee the consequences of taking in animal after animal without an accompanying increase in resources. But most hoarders do not make this connection. And yet, as Arluke writes in Inside Animal Hoarding, the outcome “can be more disturbing than incidents of deliberate cruelty toward or torture of individual animals. Often, [hoarding] affects many animals kept for months or even years under conditions of horrendous deprivation and suffering.”

It’s a paradox at the heart of the hoarding phenomenon: The behavior is driven by sickness, and those who suffer from it deserve some sympathy. But the very fact that it is a psychological disorder makes prosecution all the more critical—because without it, the hoarder will almost certainly begin collecting animals again; some experts have estimated the recidivism rate for hoarding at close to 100 percent.

Talking to a hoarder, says Boswell, is almost like speaking another language. Their denial can be difficult to penetrate. “If you haven’t dealt with them and aren’t experienced, they can sound like they’re making sense,” she says.

Hoarders will often respond to a list of concerns with a list of excuses. In conversations with Parascandola and the sheriff, the Mississippi woman claimed that others had dumped dead dogs on her property, that some of her animals had been kidnapped and then brought back infected with mange. In her mind, none of the conditions seemed to be her responsibility. (According to one of Moore’s officers, she even seemed to believe that the scores of rats running around her property were rabbits. “I’ve never seen rabbits with such long skinny tails,” he says.)

Without prosecution, a hoarder will almost certainly begin collecting animals again; some experts have estimated the recidivism rate for hoarding at close to 100 percent.

Boswell wants to see charges brought. “It’s not that we want to see her in jail,” she says, “but that’s the control.” Prosecution is often the only way to ensure, via conditions of sentencing, that a hoarder will not regress. If a person’s freedom is made conditional on not owning animals, that stipulation can sometimes effectively penetrate the layers of denial. It is often the only way to get hoarders to stop.

For Sheriff Moore, who’d never dealt with a hoarding case before this one, the experience has been eye-opening. He wants the case prosecuted as much as anyone does. And he’s already had a frightening glimpse into how thoroughly hoarders misunderstand how much their behavior hurts the animals they claim to love—and how important it is that they be held accountable, in spite of their illness.

Since the seizure, he says, he’s already heard that the animals’ owner has moved toward obtaining more pets. “Last thing I was aware of was that she was going to Petco in Meridian and trying to get some animals from them, and they told her they won’t deal with her anymore,” he says.

But that didn’t stop her. Her blindness is so complete that she came to Moore himself—the man who’s been hearing complaints for years, who’s talked to her neighbors, who was the first to open the door of her house and see the filth and the clutter and the sick, mangy animals everywhere.

“She wanted me to write a letter saying she was not charged with any kind of cruelty charges, and so it’s OK for her to receive animals again,” he says. “I thought, she has to be kidding.”

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