Loving animals to death

Animal hoarders think they're helping their furry friends, but mostly they're just feeding their own twisted psyches.

Published March 8, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

In December, police in Cooper City, Fla., found 67 dead kittens and cats in Audrey Weed's refrigerator, according to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel. More cats and a dog were running loose; litter boxes overflowed. Weed, a 50-year-old retired police officer, was charged with 92 misdemeanor counts of animal abandonment. Before the arrest, neighbors said, she would go around the neighborhood feeding all the animals she could find.

A month later, not far away in North Miami-Dade County, police acting on neighbors' tips swept four homes and confiscated 201 cats and dogs. In one house, 52 beagles were found without proper food and surrounded by feces. Near another home, 72 dogs and cats, plus chickens, waded in an open sewer line. The Miami Herald reported that healthier animals found in the raids -- around 90 -- could go up for adoption. The rest, presumably, would be destroyed.

We're at an interesting place with animal hoarders. We've seen photos of their squalor -- the local paper inevitably goes in and takes pictures of soiled carpets and piled garbage -- and we can guess what happens, ultimately, to most of those ailing cats, dogs, birds and reptiles. But for all the neglect and mistreatment we are exposed to, we also seem to find the hoarders' variety of dysfunction quirky, and in some cases funny. Rarely do we consider their condition as serious as, say, schizophrenia. We believe these people to be ill but also just plain eccentric; for every Audrey Weed, there's an entertaining Joan Byron-Marasek, the tiger collector of Susan Orlean's recent New Yorker profile. In 2002, sitcoms still make cat lady jokes.

A few people want to change that. Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, argues that animal hoarding represents a vastly misunderstood problem, one that goes far deeper than a few animal cruelty charges invite us to imagine. Despite the attention they now get from the mainstream media, animal hoarders are the focus of very little psychological research.

"For years it's been perceived as an animal welfare issue, and left for the shelters to handle by themselves," Patronek says. "The human [side of the problem] has been largely ignored."

Patronek and his group, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), coined the phrase "animal hoarding" in 1997. It was a watershed moment: There had always been cat ladies, and newspaper stories about them began to appear routinely a decade ago, but they were referred to, rather benignly, as collectors.

"That connoted nothing," says Patronek, who, as a veterinarian, has walked into homes putrid with rotting carcasses and urine-soaked floors. He says the behavior "is much more like the pathological hoarding of objects."

But there is no clinical diagnosis right now, says Patronek, despite a correlation with known pathologies such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. "We'd like to study it more," he says. "Is it a syndrome in and of itself? Probably not. But [one day] we might like it to be included as a warning sign [in psychological evaluation]."

"Perhaps the most prominent psychological feature of these individuals is that pets (and other possessions) become central to the hoarder's core identity," Patronek writes in Municipal Lawyer magazine. "The hoarder develops a strong need for control, and just the thought of losing an animal can produce an intense grief-like reaction. Preliminary HARC interviews also suggest that hoarders grew up in chaotic households, with inconsistent parenting, in which animals may have been the only stable feature."

Formal hoarding research generally confirms what we've long suspected: Nearly three-quarters of all hoarders live alone, according to a Health and Human Services report Patronek wrote; and three-quarters are also women. Almost half are 60 or older, and cats barely edge out dogs as the animal of choice. In 80 percent of the cases studied, authorities found either dead or severely ill animals in hoarders' homes. It's not uncommon for cruelty-related arrests to be followed by court-ordered psychiatric treatment, but by many accounts, the counseling is overly general, and does little for the high levels of recidivism among those convicted.

As shut-ins go, animal hoarders enjoy spectacular branding. By rough estimates, these people are scarce: Fewer than 10 in a million people, according to several studies. Nonetheless, the average American could probably describe the life of an animal hoarder better than that of, say, a state senator. It's a matter of who captures our imaginations, and state senators do not sleep in urine, swell up with infection or trip over cannibalized cat carcasses. State senators do sometimes go to jail, but it's usually a paperwork issue -- nothing so compelling as a surfeit of mismanaged doggy love.

The animal hoarder archetype is a vivid one, somewhere on the grid between wearied saint and avid philatelic. They also keep a light foot in the serial killer camp: Like serial killers, they're pathetic but obsessively thorough. They're fascinating and they make for great stories. They're quiet loners in the messy old house down the street, motivated by a perversion of something that could maybe almost make sense.

Unlike with serial killers, however, the neighbors of animal hoarders are never shocked when the authorities eventually come around. In fact, it's often the neighbors who spent two months on the phone with the county -- about the smell, the barking, the trash and the germs.

On their way to the squad car, hoarders often explain that they simply love animals, or that these particular critters would've died without their intervention, or that in a mere two cats lies loneliness. The would-be animal rescuers often say they hear a calling. The problem is that they don't always answer properly. The great irony regarding hoarders, of course, is that their loving benevolence commonly leaves a trail of horribly sick and neglected animals.

How do we predict whether obsessive animal love will evolve into something unhealthy? There was the case of the poor, ailing blind man who loved animals so much he figured he'd teach them about Jesus. Reports say he surrounded himself with all manner of critter; he rescued bunnies from snares and removed worms from busy roads. "Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God," he's said to have once told a flock of birds who clustered around him until formally dismissed. This was St. Francis of Assisi, and his boundless animal love earned him not jail time but sanctity before God.

Recalls one woman who didn't become a saint, but is instead currently facing charges for mistreating over 150 pets and barnyard animals, "Since I was a kid, I was scooping ants out of puddles."

As she tells it, her collection represented a lifetime of devotion to animals -- she ran something of a refuge, and did everything she could to give her adoptees good lives. Authorities, however, painted a picture of broken limbs, infections, dental abominations and helpless creatures who ultimately had to be put down in some cases.

"I got crucified ... I just hope every animal went to a good home. That's how I console myself," the woman says. "Afterwards, I had death threats. I've been told to come back [to town] in a disguise."

The psychological dynamics at play in a hoarder's home simply didn't make it into research journals until very recently. Related studies have proven instrumental for Patronek and his group in drawing attention to the subject: In recent years, psychologists established a clear link between the abuse of animals and domestic abuse among humans. While it might have been common sense that someone who hits the dog is a good candidate for hitting his wife, defining the relationship psychologically required years of data.

"In the last 10 years the idea gained legitimacy," Patronek says. "You can now have a serious discussion about it."

The general connection between animal and domestic abuse is helping pave the way for further research into specific hoarding pathologies.

"[Hoarding] might not even have to do with animals. It might reflect human needs," he says. "We're now looking into the idea that animal neglect could be a sentinel for human neglect. A significant minority do have a dependent family member present."

The pet industry appears to be more or less disengaged from the issue of animal hoarding, despite occasional public objections to limits on animal breeding. (The Cat Fanciers Association wants cat fanciers free to make all the kittens they need, and the group has hissed at the plea by PETA for prospective cat owners to adopt exclusively from the SPCA.)

Michael Maddox, counsel for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, says animal hoarding has little to do with the pet industry, since few hoarders get their collections in pet stores. But does the industry feel compelled to step in?

"We would want to play a role in resolving the overall issue," Maddox said, though he knew of no official policy on the horizon.

The largely uncharted world of animal hoarding is crossed right and left with shades of gray. Was Fund for Animals founder Cleveland Amory an animal hoarder? His Black Beauty Ranch boasted a wonderful collection of rescued creatures, and surely the occasional burro developed an infection or broke a leg there. Is it simply better funding that allowed Amory's project to distinguish itself from the thousands of squalid backyard sanctuaries that repulse us each year?

Is it reasonable to apply the collateral damage model to the realm of animal munificence? In war, generals aren't hauled off to court if some of their troops get wounded; it's considered a consequence of battle's noble gesture. Warped though it might be, it's a noble impulse that guides many of these hoarders. Can it be argued that every malnourished kitten is simply a little friendly fire in the cat lady's larger battle against homeless cats?

Not if you've seen a hoarder's house, Patronek argues.

"You can't imagine what these places are like," he says. "Eyeballs everywhere, ammonia so thick you need a mask to breath ... it doesn't resonate that these people are just trying to help and it just 'got out of hand.'"

Walnut Creek, Calif., resident Bob Teachout knows about the gray areas of large-scale devotion to animals. Just recently, the city's planning commission allowed him to keep his 400 thoroughbred homing pigeons, despite complaints from neighbors -- not of abuse, but of strong smells, flies, dust, rats and mice. The birds were supposedly lowering property values, Teachout says.

"With racing pigeons, they're athletes," he explains, laughing off the idea of mistreating his flock. "You have to have them in top physical and mental health. They have to want to race home."

Indeed, Teachout's interest in the pigeons is more hobby than addiction -- as president of the Martinez Racing Pigeon Club, he helps arrange races as long as 560 miles -- and his passion for the birds is impressive, not spooky.

"I got my first pigeons 40 years ago, when I was 15," he recalls. "It turned my life around. Animals are one of the best ways to teach kids about life, death and responsibility."

As for hoarders, Teachout has no patience.

"I think most of them believe they are loving those animals ... but animal cruelty is just as bad as cruelty to children."

In the pigeon breeding and racing circles, a kind of self-policing mechanism exists, where racers keep an eye on other racers to make sure the birds are treated well. It's so effective, he says, that in nearby Concord, the city contacts the pigeon club in the event of a complaint. The club then helps step in to resolve the problem.

At AnimalPeople.com, a personals service for animal lovers, the motto reads: "Pets bring people closer." Well, yes and no. The singles involved with AnimalPeople.com seem sane enough (even endearing, posing with their beagles and their tabbies), and in general animal lovers seem to be the good ones among us, the friendly types who don't honk in traffic. But at certain quantities and under certain circumstances, pets do anything but bring people closer. Hoarding behavior, like other compulsions, facilitates a suspension of social interaction, which often then leads to the acquisition of even more animals. As a society we may have etched out rough boundaries for acceptable animal treatment, but those who've dropped out remain free to draw their own lines.

Just Tuesday, police in Marshall, N.C., charged a couple with two counts of misdemeanor cruelty after finding more than 100 potbellied pigs, about 20 dogs, two dozen cats and several chickens and ducks in their house, according to the Associated Press. The floor of the home was "matted with mud and animal droppings."

Hugh and Karen Koontz say their home started as a refuge -- Karen was running something called the Peaceable Kingdom Animal Sanctuary, but got sick and could no longer care for the creatures.

"Things just get away from you," her husband said.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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