Animal hoarding has had a name since 1999, but scientific research is beginning to put a face to that name and identify developing complexities and growing concerns over the aberrant human behavior. The riveting topic is being discussed in presentations at the American Veterinary Medical Association Convention in Denver this weekend.
“The conditions of animal hoarding have always been a violation of the cruelty statutes in every state, but it is only recently that we have started to examine this problem in its entirety,” said Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC). He is presenting “An Overview of Animal Hoarding as a Complex Problem” at the giant convention. But there is much that isn’t uniform with respect to the treatment of hoarders and the animals involved.
For one, the practice of hoarding runs on a large spectrum of behaviors with a few underlying similarities. According to Dr. Patronek, “Animal hoarders often have a history of trauma, from childhood into adulthood,” he said. “There is a strong human-animal bond attachment, with the hoarder seeking emotional support from the animals that they are unable to get from people, or praise from others for their role as a caregiver.” Intentional abuse is not commonly found in hoarding situations, according to Dr. Patronek, but hoarders do possess a huge blind spot to deplorable living conditions and a concrete inability to acknowledge that there is a problem. Hoarding isn’t blind to any profession, he said, including veterinary medicine.
By definition, hoarding is having a large number of animals and being unable to care for them properly, while lacking the insight into deteriorating conditions and continuing to accumulate more animals—and these situations are largely unregulated and unmonitored. Hoarding has proven it can extend beyond the imaginable on occasion, to which Dr. Becky Morrow, a professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, can attest.
She was involved in the 2008 raid on Tiger Ranch, a facility that operated under the guise of a no-kill cat sanctuary for a number of years in Pennsylvania. Inside, hundreds of once-healthy cats were found to be severely debilitated, malnourished or exposed to a multitude of fatal infectious diseases; deceased cats were found in a freezer, and dead or dying cats in the “Death Room” in the garage. All told, Tiger Ranch is believed to have received 9,000 cats each year, for at least five years, from a nine-state area at a $5 relinquishment fee per cat. Approximately 10 cats were adopted out each year.
“My team had more than 300 pages of evidence, video surveillance and detailed records from a source volunteering inside the facility,” said Dr. Morrow, who is also addressing attendees at the AVMA convention. “We knew animals were suffering. When we had enough documentation and received a warrant, there was such a sense of relief that, finally, we could do something for these animals.” She re-opened a local abandoned facility and filled it with former Tiger Ranch residents she and other veterinarians rehabilitated.
Institutionalized hoarding is a growing problem and carries a darker, calculating side of betrayal and misrepresentation that is not present in individual hoarding cases. Dr. Morrow does not believe that, at Tiger Ranch, there was any intent to save or care for the animals. “The owner knew what she was doing at Tiger Ranch,” she said. “She preyed on people’s emotions and told them what they wanted to hear, easily appearing to be trustworthy, humane and an animal lover.”
What makes the problem of hoarding so complex? For starters, much of what is known of hoarders has been written by the HARC. Outside HARC, however, most mental-health professionals do not receive any training in this area. In addition, hoarders live in a distorted reality and are known to be resistant to intervention; therefore, there are no validated mental health treatment protocols. Furthermore, due to the paucity of research, the problem isn’t considered serious enough to warrant federal research dollars, and there aren’t laws governing lifestyle choices.
As Dr. Patronek illustrates, “If a person wants to live in two feet of manure, he can choose to do that as long as no one is getting hurt — but how do you convince someone that these conditions are wrong for the animals when he and possibly his family are living under the same conditions without complaint? The lack of insight on the part of the hoarder adds to the complexity of the situation. We still have a huge gap between what is considered inadequate care and what constitutes prosecutable animal abuse.”
The gap does appear to be closing a bit. In 2013, hoarding was listed as a new disorder (with animal hoarding mentioned under features supporting diagnosis) in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the “bible” of psychological diagnoses. With this recognition, Drs. Patronek and Morrow are hopeful that mechanisms for earlier intervention will not be far behind, and that parallels with the child-protection system may be forthcoming.
Unlike children who are poorly cared for, animals in a hoarding environment are treated by the legal system as evidence. They must be held in custody until the trial is completed, incurring additional costs and forcing them to life in an institutional setting. “Animals in hoarding situations are victims, not evidence. We need to share these stories about hoarders and help people look at things differently, to be more skeptical of shelters that pop up and the people who run them,” said Dr. Morrow. “We have to realize that animals can suffer a fate worse than death, and that it is our duty to be vigilant on their behalf.”
“As veterinarians, we are striving for a win-win situation,” said Dr. Patronek. “Ideally, we want to keep the family intact, but that is not always possible. Tiger Ranch is a case in point in which the animals had to be removed from custody for their own protection.”
Education is vital to early intervention, he said. The human mental-health community must understand the intricacies of animal suffering, the human-animal bond and proper animal care so that the courts receive a more informative evaluation. “We can evaluate a person’s capacity to provide proper parenting using civil child protection statutes,” said Dr. Patronek. “We should explore a similar concept for a person’s capacity to care for animals without having to wait until animals have suffered so much that the caretaker can be prosecuted for felony animal cruelty.” This is bad medicine for people, communities, and animals.