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July 15, 2010

What do you do when the hoarder is your own mother?

In this report, the child of an animal hoarder describes her mother's disorder and her own struggles to help

All Animals magazine, July/August 2010

  • Birds screeched in cages stacked throughout the house. Anonymous

  • Rats would die in the house and lie there rotting. Anonymous

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I approached my mother’s house. During the years I’d been away, my brother had told me that she’d acquired a number of birds—too many, in his opinion. 

Mom was always bad at cleaning, and she doesn’t like to throw things away. She’d always had pets: a few dogs, a cat, and several parrots. People in the neighborhood called her “the bird lady” and brought her their pet birds to babysit. Sometimes they left them there permanently.

That was years ago, when things were relatively normal.

Upon my return, I heard parrots squawking from a block away. As I opened the door, an intolerable din and stench washed over me. Bird cages, some empty and some filled with screeching birds, had replaced furniture. Cages lined the walls, covered the countertops, and were stacked on the floors. Bird seed covered the floor, and from the rodent droppings everywhere, it seemed that every rat and mouse around had come running for the smorgasbord.

Bird poop piled up in cones under the perches. Fly strips hung from the ceiling like party streamers, coated with flies, while more swarmed around. Spider webs draped the corners of the fly-speck covered walls, and beetles crawled through the carpet.

Like most animal hoarders, my mom refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong. It’s the visits from “that damn animal control” or “those nosy health department people”—not her behavior—that are the problem. 

In hindsight, there were plenty of red flags, long before it came to this. In my childhood, there were always hamsters, tortoises, cats, and dogs. Although most of the pets lived outside, the home’s interior was in such disarray that guests were forbidden. My mom had other peculiarities: kitchen cabinets stuffed with empty margarine tubs, closets full of used wrapping paper and ribbon, broken appliances that never found their way to the dump.

None of these eccentricities were alarming at the time, but together with my mom’s depression, her unhappy marriage, her fondness for acquiring pets, and her controlling parenting, it was a setup for a nightmare.

My mom fits the profile of many hoarders: an elderly woman, divorced and with grown children, filling her emotional void with objects—and with animals. I suspect that animals became part of the situation because, unlike children, animals don’t grow up and move away. And large parrots live 50 years or more—ensuring they will never leave.

Like most animal hoarders, my mom refuses to acknowledge that anything is wrong. It’s the visits from “that damn animal control” or “those nosy health department people”—not her behavior—that are the problem. In her mind, she is caring for her animals just fine.

Any suggestion that she rehome any of the birds provokes an angry outburst: “Those are my children! You don’t get rid of your children!” Further attempts at discussion send her into isolation for months. 

It was hard even for me to acknowledge that my mother is an animal hoarder. It’s easy to view a hoarder as someone who has simply become overwhelmed. After all, most of her birds came from people who no longer wanted their noisy, messy pet parrots and dropped them off with “the bird lady.”

For several years, I made regular cleaning pilgrimages to my mom’s house, thinking that she’d see the benefits of a clean living space. But every counter I cleared would be soon covered again in boxes, trash, or 20-pound bags of birdseed. Every time, my heart sank at the disaster renewed.

Once, I arrived to find a new stack of cages, each one holding a single hamster. The next time, the hamster containers were gone, and dozens of fish tanks had taken their place.  Next, the fish tanks were still there, but the fish weren’t. No one had fed the fish, and they had died.

Sometimes rats crawled out of the walls and died. Even when the bodies became bloated and maggot-laden, my mom simply stepped over them.

I know my mother will never be cured of animal hoarding. Her blindness to the suffering of her dozens of neglected birds, her inability to see the health hazards around her, and her refusal to discuss the situation destroy any shred of hope for change. 

Today, my mom’s house is in foreclosure. In a few weeks she will be forced to leave it—and the animals—behind. As she flatly refuses to prepare to leave, I’ll have to warn Adult Protective Services and local animal control.

Because I know that the recidivism rate for animal hoarders is near 100 percent, I don’t have illusions that when my mother is forced out she will stop her behavior. Had I taken action early enough, I might have been able to curb it. My hope now is that others in similar situations might be able to do what I could not before it’s too late.

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