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Animal Hoarding: When Someone's Love for Animals Becomes an Unhealthy Addiction
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What Defines a Hoarder?
Animal hoarding is a complex and sensitive issue that affects all types of communities and endangers the health and safety of both animals and people. It has been estimated that, in the United States alone, between 900 and 2,000 cases of animal hoarding are reported every year involving almost a half-million animals. There is no discrimination when it comes to what type of animals fall victim to hoarders; they can range from dogs and cats to exotic birds and farm animals.
An animal hoarder is defined as someone who houses more than the typical number of animals for the average household, to the point where the person is unable to provide minimal care. The hoarder is no longer able to afford basic nutrition, adequate and sanitary shelter, and veterinary care resulting in malnutrition, illness and death for the animals, yet the person does not see the risk in which they are putting themselves and others.
There are no similarities when it comes to the age, gender, race or ethnic background of hoarders. Elderly people do tend to be more at risk due to deteriorating health and growing lack of social interaction, however not all hoarders are of a certain age range. The one similarity between all hoarders is their failure to recognize the severity of their situation. They live in absolute denial of the filth in which they and their animals are dwelling. Most of the time animal hoarders sincerely believe they are helping their animals; that their animals are better off living with them than on the street. They are completely unable to see the harm they are inflicting.
There is no clear-cut reason as to why people become animal hoarders. At one time it was believed to be a variation of obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, researchers are now more inclined to believe that attachment disorders (where a person is incapable of forming a healthy bond with another being) along with personality disorders, paranoia, depression and other mental illnesses may be involved. Many hoarders start collecting after suffering from a traumatic incident. Others may believe themselves to be rescuers and that it is their sole purpose to save animals.
Signs That Someone May Be an Animal Hoarder
Hoarders have a tendency to isolate themselves from the community and neglect their own well-being. They often have so many animals they may not even know the total number that live with them. Their homes are deteriorated; windows are dirty, unkempt yard (if they have one); broken furniture, holes in wall and their home is littered with trash including feces. Although they believe they are helping animals, their animals are usually uncared for and are malnourished, emaciated, and not well socialized.
One of the most disturbing facts about hoarders is that many set themselves up as “rescue shelters,” with 501(c) (3) not-for-profit status, and the internet has become the perfect tool for them to advertise. A report from NBC in 2011 discussed a case in Pennsylvania of a woman who set up a shelter, taking in over 7,000 cats but only found homes for 23. When investigators raided her “shelter” they found killing rooms and so many shallow graves it was near impossible to not step on bones.
There are several ways to tell if a rescue group or shelter is run by a hoarder.
- A legitimate group will allow you to visit their location. If the particular group you are communicating with is unwilling to allow visitors to their location and wants to receive the animal at an area other than the facility (particularly a remote area), this should set off warning signals.
- A “shelter” run by a hoarder will either be unwilling to disclose the number of animals in its care or may not know the exact number.
- Be sure to do research as to the percentage of animals that are adopted out by the shelter. Shelters run by hoarders make very little effort to adopt out their animals.
- Hoarders generally view legitimate shelters as “the enemy.” If the shelter you are communicating with speaks degradingly of a legitimate shelter, this also should set off alarms.
Please note that if a person has many animals it does not mean they are a hoarder. I’ve personally known people with dozens of animals and not only did they keep a clean home but all of their animals were spayed/neutered, well fed and were provided with regular veterinary care. A person in this situation would not be considered an animal hoarder. At times a legitimate rescuer may find him or herself overwhelmed and may end up with more animals than they can care for but are not considered hoarders if they are actively taking steps to rectify their situation. If you are a rescuer who is reading this or know of one in this situation you can contact your local shelter or veterinarian for assistance.
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Laws Against Hoarding
As of right now, there are only two states that have laws in place that specifically address animal hoarding: Illinois, with the help of the ASPCA, instituted the Companion Animal Hoarder Act in 2001. This statute involves mandated counseling for those who meet the definition. However, animal hoarding itself is not outlawed. Hawaii instituted a law in 2008 that specifically outlaws hoarding but does not require counseling for the convicted hoarders or prohibit future animal ownership.
In every other state, animal hoarding is covered under the animal cruelty statute, although anti-hoarding legislation has been proposed but not yet passed in many states. These animal cruelty laws require animal caretakers to provide adequate food, water and veterinary care.
Prosecution of an animal hoarder is a very difficult matter. As mentioned earlier, most hoarders are emotionally troubled. Chances are, if the person is prosecuted, once litigation ends, the chances are extremely high that they will go back to their old habit. The best course of action would be for a judge to enforce mandatory counseling and/or prohibit the person from taking in animals in the future. It would best serve all communities if social service agencies joined forces with animal shelters and law enforcement to intervene and rescue animals that fall victim to this situation, then follow up with continuous monitoring to prevent relapse.
If you know someone who is struggling with this issue, please be sure to contact your local humane law enforcement department, animal welfare group or local veterinarian.
(c) 2014 Brenda Thornlow
Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; The Revolving Door; A Godless Love and her memoir, My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect. Available at Amazon. (Link below)
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