Animal hoarding exists when a person houses more animals than he or she appropriately can provide care, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or ASPCA. Animal hoarding is a type of a more broadly defined mental health condition called hoarding disorder, according to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic. A complex issue, animal hoarding presents three primary types of concerns:
- individual mental health
- animal welfare
- public safety
Animal hoarding occurs in the United States with alarming frequency. Over 250,000 animals are hoarded in the country annually, according to statistics maintained by the ASPCA. The serious nature and consequences of animal hoarding, combined with its frequency, renders understanding all aspects of this phenomenon important.
Essential Definition of Animal Hoarding
There exists no set numerical calculation to determine whether animal hoarding occurs. A determination of animal hoarding must be made on a case-by-case basis. For example, a dairy farmer may maintain two dozen felines on the premises. However, this type of agrarian has a definite need for the presence of this number of cats. These animals are integral to controlling unhealthy vermin that otherwise can overrun a dairy operation. In addition, a dairy operator would have the ability to properly maintain a significant number of cats on the premises.
Conversely, if an urban dweller kept two dozen cats in a residential dwelling, that would likely constitute animal hoarding. Odds are that number of felines would also violate a city or township ordinance. Indeed, even a much smaller number of animals in one location could constitute hoarding, depending upon the surrounding facts and circumstances.
The ASPCA, an organization intimately involved in animal welfare issues, including remediating hoarding situations, has established something of a test to ascertain whether a situation, in fact, constitutes hoarding.
Hoarding exists if a person has such a number of animals at his or her premises that minimal standards of nutrition cannot be met. These animals lack proper shelter. In addition, the number of animals at the premises prevents appropriate sanitation. Finally, these animals do not receive proper veterinary care, including treatment for major health issues. The combination of these factors ultimately results in starvation, persistent illness, and death of the hoarded animals.
Indications of Hoarding
Arising from its work to remediate the condition, the ASPCA has delineated a list of seven signs that hoarding is occurring. In many cases, all or nearly all of these indicators are present.
First, one sign of hoarding is the presence of what appears to be an unusually large number of animals in an individual’s “care.” However, many hoarders are adept at actually hiding the true number of animals on their premises. For example, these animals exclusively are kept within the confines of a hoarder’s residence. As an aside, in many cases, a hoarder has so many animals that he or she has no idea of the actual number.
Second, a person who hoards animals likely lives in a deteriorated residence. This includes everything from broken windows and holes in walls and the floor to dirty windows and extreme clutter.
Third, the premises of an animal hoarder is likely to smell of ammonia. The floors probably are covered with waste that includes urine, feces, and vomit.
Fourth, the animals themselves are likely to be poorly socialized. They are likely to be emaciated and lethargic.
Fifth, premises at which hoarding occurs are also likely to be infested with fleas and even other types of vermin.
Sixth, the hoarder is likely to be isolated from other individuals. A hoarder likely neglects his or her self as well, including a failure to take proper nutrition and a failure to appropriately groom.
Finally, a hoarder is highly likely to insist that hoarding is not occurring. Indeed, a hoarder probably will maintain that all of the animals are healthy, happy, and cared for properly. A hoarder will make these declarations, despite objective evidence to the contrary.
Mental Health and Animal Hoarding
As mentioned previously, animal hoarding includes a mental health component. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America has collected extensive research data associated with animal hoarding.
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and associated research, animal hoarding is medically defined as a compulsive need to collect and own animals for the sake of caring for them. This compulsion typically results in the unintentional neglect or abuse of these animals.
Animal hoarding not only has negative consequences on the animals themselves. This type of hoarding also harms the individual compelled to engage in this type of activity. An animal hoarder ultimately becomes emotionally overwhelmed and isolated socially. An animal hoarder nearly always ends up alienated from family members and friends. The social ostracism only makes the animal hoarding compulsion far worse.
Even though a large number of animals makes proper care impossible, this does not mean that an animal hoarder lacks compassion for these animals. Rather, the exact opposite is the case. The typical animal hoarder possesses an intense emotional attachment to the animals they have collected. The pain of contemplating letting their animals go can be intense. This is the case even when the hoarder’s own living conditions are untenable because of the hoarded animals.
The mental compulsion to hoard animals results in a hoarder blocking out the harm that is coming to him or her and to the subject animals as well. Their mental status causes a hoarder to believe that he or she is properly nurturing the animals while setting up a process for his or her own personal healing.
Individual Cases Illustrate the Plight of Animal Hoarding
Statistics are helpful in assisting in understanding the scope and breadth of animal hoarding. On the other hand, individual stories are crucial to assist aid in understanding the full impact of animal hoarding. Real life animal hoarding stories are presented to provide a better understanding of the harm caused by hoarding, damage caused to humans, animals, and the community as a whole.
Animal Hoarding Is Not Just About Collecting Cats
The internet abounds with stories about so-called “crazy cat ladies.” Felines are the targets of animal hoarders with significant frequency. However, animal hoarders come in many forms. The popular A&E television program “Hoarders” told the tale of Glen, a man who hoarded rats. The man permitted his house to become overrun with rats.
Glen cared deeply for the rats that swamped his residence. The incredible number of rats presented a health hazard to the hoarder and a public safety hazard to the community at large.
Ultimately, thanks to an intervention, Glen agreed to rat remediation at his home. A promise was made that the rats would be humanely dealt with upon removal. A commitment was made to avoid euthanizing them and finding a strategy for allowing them to live in appropriate environments. In addition, through the intervention, it was agreed that Glen would select and keep one rat as a pet into the future. The man was also provided assistance in repairing and restoring his home, a residence which was badly damaged by the incredible number of rats occupying the premises.
Animal Hoarding Is Not Just About Unknown Individuals: The Case of Grey Gardens
Grey Gardens was, and is again today, a magnificent mansion in East Hampton, New York. The manse was the home of Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s aunt Edith Bouvier Beale, and the former First Lady’s cousin, Edie Beale.
Around the time President John Kennedy was in office, Grey Garden fell into utter disrepair. The estate also becomes home to some 300 cats hoarded by the two Beale women, known among their family members as Big Edie and Little Edie. Raccoons also took up residence in the Bouvier Beale mansion.
Ultimately, Jackie Kennedy intervened on behalf of her aunt and cousin, after herself becoming Mrs. Aristotle Onassis. Mrs. Onassis spent her own money to clean up Grey Gardens and rid the place of all the elements of hoarding, including the vast number of felines.
Grey Gardens eventually was restored to its former glory, after the Bouvier Beales vacated. Journalists Ben Bradlee and Sally Quinn ultimately became the residents of Grey Gardens, sans the grand collection of cats.
The Case of a Politician’s Wife
Colorado is known for its spacious vistas, snow-capped mountains, and wildlife. Colorado is also home to one of the oddest cases of notorious animal hoarding by a public figure.
One of the most influential and powerful politicians in Colorado for an extended period of time was a man named Ted Strickland. Strickland was the President of the Colorado Senate and often tagged as being a possible candidate for a higher officer. He and his wife, LuAnne, owned a 26-acre farm on the outskirts of Denver.
Ultimately, when a dog escaped from the Strickland farm, a startling discovery was made. LuAnne Strickland was outed as a major animal hoarder. Almost 600 dogs and cats ultimately were removed from the Strickland property.
The animals were in terrible physical condition. Dead cats and dogs were discovered in shallow graves around the farm.
The hoarding of animals by LuAnne Strickland actually began with noble intentions, as is often the case with an animal hoarder. She reached an agreement with the director of a local animal shelter that any dog or cat slated for euthanasia would be released to her. Over an 18-month period of time, that resulted in an estimated 2,100 animals being brought to the Strickland farm.
A Man and His Pigs
Although animal hoarding garners a great deal of media attention in this day and age, individuals historically have exhibited this melody. A wealthy Iowan illustrates the point.
During the early part of his life, a man identified as William Jones for the purposes of this article enjoyed a successful career. He made a great deal of money and elected to retire early.
As part of retirement, he purchased a small farm in Iowa, outside of a one-store berg called Otterville. In a matter of a couple of years, Jones had begun harboring an ever increasing number of pigs on his property. There is nothing peculiar about pigs on an Iowa farm.
The case of Jones became odd as the number of pigs on his property continues to increase, and Jones began to live directly with the animals. The Jones farm gave George Orwell a run for the money when some of the pigs started to take up residence in the farmhouse. Jones himself stated to reside primarily in one of the hog sheds.
No one ever intervened to assist Jones. Rather, those in the community, including neighboring farmers, just shook their heads and went about their business. Over time, ones were rarely seen, even wandering about his farm. In time, he died of natural causes, among his pigs.
Addressing Animal Hoarding
In addition to intervention to protect the welfare of animals being hoarded, the hoarder his or her self needs assistance as well. Removing animals from a hoarding situation is all well and good. However, the mere removal of hoarded animals does not resolve the underlying problems that resulted in hoarding in the first instance. A hoarder needs appropriate treatment in order to ensure that he or she does not start hoarding animals yet again.
Root Causes of Animal Hoarding
Despite an ever-growing amount of research, there remains no clear indication of what causes a person to become an animal hoarder in the first instance, according to the Mayo Clinic. Researchers are focused on three factors that may give rise to animal hoarding. These are:
Potential Risk Factors for Animal Hoarding
- brain functioning
- stressful life events
Although specific causes of animal hoarding are yet to be fully pinned down scientifically, there are some risk factors that suggest a person might be susceptible to becoming a hoarder. These risk factors include:
- many people who hard are indecisive
- many individuals who hoard have a family member who hoards
- many individuals who hoard have experienced a highly stressful life event
In addition to these personality traits, a hoarder oftentimes suffers from other mental health conditions. These include:
Treatment for Animal Hoarding
- attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
In many cases, a person involved in animal hoarding does not seek professional assistance on their own. An individual hoarding animal typically does not believe that he or she has a problem or that he or she is doing anything wrong. Indeed, more often than not, such an individual believes that they are doing something appropriate and helpful by hoarding animals.
In many cases, the treatment of hoarding involves the treatment and resolution of another underlying mental health issue, like depression or anxiety disorder of some type. There are two general categories of treatment associated with animal hoarding.
Psychotherapy, also known as talk therapy, is the primary course of treatment for an animal hoarder. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most frequently utilized type of psychotherapy utilized to address animal hoarding.
In addition to psychotherapy, medication is also utilized in some cases of animal hoarding. With that noted, there are no medications approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration designed to treat animal hoarding. Oftentimes, medications are utilized to address associated mental health issues, like depression or anxiety disorder.
Professionals in the field of treating individuals who engage in animal hoarding make it clear that effectively addressing the compulsion oftentimes requires the assistance and support of family members and friends. “Treatment often involves routine assistance from family, friends, and agencies to help remove clutter. This is particularly the case for the elderly or those struggling with medical conditions that may make it difficult to maintain effort and motivation,” according to the Mayo Clinic.