The Danger of Pet Hoarding? Is it Actually a Rescue?
To someone desperate to find a home for a litter of kittens, the Chubbers Animal Rescue would have appeared to be the perfect haven. Nestled in a wooded lot in Caroline County, Maryland, the former home of Linda Farve and Ernie Mills was a place where people could relinquish cats, seemingly secure in the knowledge that the couple would help the animals find happy homes.
But in reality, behind the facade of the cheerful website and rural home, tragedy lurked. When animal control officers and volunteers from the Caroline County Humane Society and The Humane Society of the United States entered the home on May 1, 2003 they found more than 300 cats, including more than 70 felines in various forms of decomposition. If the smell of animal death weren't enough, volunteers also encountered surfaces covered with inches of waste and garbage.
"In one part of the house, we were stepping on several layers of feces and skeletons," says The HSUS's Krista Hughes, one of the volunteers who served as part of a team to document the situation and rescue the cats. "It was disgusting. The amount of filth was unbelievable."
It didn't start out that way. Several years earlier, the Humane Society of Caroline County had visited the Favre/Mills home and approved Chubbers as a legitimate animal rescue organization. Soon afterward, the couple began accepting and, in some cases, actively seeking out cats from around the East Coast. It wasn't long before the number of cats began to multiply, as this horrific case of animal hoarding unfolded.
A Deadly Obsession
For most people, the term "animal hoarding" conjures up images of an eccentric "cat lady." Despite the stereotype that collecting animals is simply a quirky behavior, recent research has pointed to a direct correlation between psychological problems and the tendency to hoard.
"Hoarding is very often a symptom of a greater mental illness, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder. For most hoarders, it is likely that their actions are the result of a true pathology, even though they are still usually able to function quite well in society," says Randall Lockwood, HSUS vice president for Research and Educational Outreach.
Because animal hoarders quite often appear to lead normal lives, it's important to recognize when a person's fixation with animals has gotten out of control. The HSUS defines an animal hoarder as a person who has more animals than he or she can properly care for. Another defining characteristic is the hoarder's denial of his inability to care for the animals and his failure to grasp the impact his neglect has on the animals, the household, and the human occupants of the dwelling.
What's more, hoarders are usually well-educated and possess excellent communication skills. Many hoarders have an uncanny ability to attract sympathy for themselves, no matter how abused their animals may be, which is often how hoarders manage to fool others into thinking the situation is under control.
"Very few hoarder cases simply involve good intentions gone awry, despite the insistence of the hoarder that he or she loves the animals and wants to save their lives," says Lockwood. "It's unbelievable how someone who reports to love animals so much can cause so much suffering."
House of Horrors
For many involved in investigating animal cruelty and neglect, hoarding cases are among the most horrific they ever encounter. "The amount of suffering in a hoarder case is more widespread and of a longer duration than most animal cruelty cases," says Lockwood. "Although the case of a dog being violently killed is shocking, in a hoarder case the suffering can be felt by hundreds of animals for months and months on end."
Indeed, hoarding can have serious repercussions for the animals involved. "Hoarding can often amount to physical, medical and physiological neglect in the extreme," says Lockwood. The unsanitary conditions of the dwelling and lack of veterinary treatment and social interaction for animals all add up to serious neglect. The animals involved often endure a variety of ailments, such as malnutrition, parasitic infestation, infection, and disease.
According to the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, many hoarder dwellings have been condemned as unfit for human habitation. Polluted air in some homes is so irritating to the respiratory tract, because of the high level of ammonia present, that a visitor cannot enter without protective breathing apparatus.
Because of the horrible suffering involved, criminal animal cruelty charges are increasingly being filed in hoarding cases. Yet, because animal hoarding is linked to mental illness, the most appropriate resolution is still being debated. A combination of therapy and long-term monitoring is the often the best approach, in part because of the high recidivism rate. (Most hoarders revert to old behaviors unless they receive ongoing mental health assistance and monitoring.)
Jail time may also be appropriate in some hoarding cases, although, according to Ann Chynoweth, counsel to Investigative Services for The HSUS, it's uncommon for criminal charges to be brought against hoarders, and even more uncommon that those charged receive jail time.
The Caroline County case was unusual in this respect. Both Mills and Farve were sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years probation after pleading guilty to three and four counts respectively of felony animal cruelty, yet they were scheduled to receive a mental evaluation only as an afterthought.
"We are pleased that Maryland's felony animal cruelty law was meaningfully enforced in this massive case of animal cruelty, and we applaud the judge for acknowledging the severity of the crime," says Chynoweth. "At the same time, we are disappointed that there was not more attention to the need of psychological counseling in this case."
Community members can make sure hoarders get the help they need, while protecting animals at the same time, by notifying local police and/or animal control if they suspect someone is hoarding animals. In addition, as a basic precaution, anyone who is considering relinquishing an animal to a private rescue group should first visit the premises and ask to see where the animals are kept.
It's vital that people work together to stop animal hoarding. As the Caroline County case and recent studies illustrate, good intentions aren't always enough. It really does seem possible to love animals to death.
Courtesy of Rebecca Simmons. Rebecca Simmons is the Outreach Communications Coordinator for the Companion Animals section of The HSUS.