Friday, June 5, 2009

What It Is and What Communities Can Do To Halt It…

By Ruth Steinberger, Tusla Pets

What It Is and What Communities Can Do To Halt It…

Shocking stories of homes with sometimes hundreds of animals, languishing in filth and starvation, make headlines with increasing frequency. While the public expresses shock and newspapers blame social conditions resulting in excess animals, few people understand the dynamics of hoarding, a mental illness that results in horrific animal neglect, and often poses health risks to the people around it.

Randall Lockwood, PhD, Senior Vice President, Anti-cruelty Initiatives and Legislative Services of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) is a leading veterinary forensics researcher and an authority on animal hoarding. Lockwood defines hoarding as, “People who have more animals than they can reasonably care for and the conditions under which they are kept have deteriorated to the point of endangering the health of the animals involved, but also conditions affect the caretaker and others in the household.” He explained, “Hoarding does not simply depend on the number of animals that someone has. The key characteristics are in the conditions in which the animals are kept.”

Formerly called, ‘animal collectors,’ a term which may denote collection of valuable items like stamps or cars, hoarders confine animals in filth, often in uncomfortably small cages, underfed and dehydrated although food and water are on the premises; dead or dying animals are often found on the premises as well. Hoarding is diagnosed as an obsessive, compulsive disorder.

Lockwood said, “When we do training we tell officers to take pictures of the food—a characteristic of a hoarder is to have food on the premises that is not fed to the animals, while they literally starve. There will often be medications on the site, also unused or even bottles unopened.”

Many hoarders share a phobia of death. If not stopped, hoarding is usually fatal for at least some of the victims. It is not unusual to find carcasses of the victims in their freezer.

There is no single condition that produces hoarding, and a different mental diagnosis may result in hoarding behavior, but Lockwood said, “Most hoarders are of average or above average intelligence, many are of care-giving professions including teachers, nurses, veterinarians, social service workers, doctors—the majority are women who are over 65, but there are many variations.” Because the person may have been in a care-giving profession, in about 25% of animal hoarding cases, other dependent individuals, including an elderly parent, are endangered as well.

A key characteristic is that the hoarder seems oblivious to the suffering. Lockwood said, “They are in denial. You walk into the house and there are inches, or even feet of feces and there are even dead animals there, you can barely catch your breath, and they think there is nothing wrong. This is a psychological condition.”

The majority of hoarded animals are cats and dogs, but all other species become victims as well.
Lockwood has seen a dramatic upsurge in the number of hoarders who pose as rescue organizations. He said, “We used to characterize around 15% of the hoarder cases as so-called ‘rescue hoarders.’ I think that number has grown, partly in response to the No-Kill pressures. The foundation of that philosophy, in many cases, supports hoarders; legitimate organizations have unknowingly supplied hoarders with pets to get them out of their shelters in order to lower their euthanasia rates.”

Lockwood said, “Close to one third of the hoarding cases now are rescue hoarders.”

Lockwood gave tips for recognizing hoarders in your community. He said, “Suspect hoarding if a person or rescue will only receive animals at a location away from their facility, such as a parking lot. Another warning sign is if they only receive animals only at strange hours, so you simply do not expect to go past the front door. As with visiting a breeder, if you visit a rescue facility and cannot see how the animals are maintained, that is probably not a legitimate operation. The other characteristic is that the animals go in but do not go out, they keep accumulating animals. They often have no idea of how many animals they have and may express shock that it, “Got out of hand.”

Lockwood said some hoarders have tried to explain the presence of dead and dying animals by calling themselves hospices, and usually explain the condition of at least some of the animals as having cancer. Lockwood pointed out that even if an animal is sick, legitimate animal hospices do not have animals lying in their own filth, dying of neglect.

What can a community do to prevent hoarding? A community-based hoarder prevention task force is the best approach. Lockwood said, “We recommend bringing together the groups that are likely to encounter hoarders, including animal control, humane organizations, adult protective services, mental health, the police department and the prosecutor. If hoarding is detected in an early enough stage, you can try to initiate intervention if you have the staffing resources. It is unrealistic to expect a small, private humane organization to go into a situation which includes a serious mental health problem, a zoning issue, and more, and take action without back up.”

When asked if pet limits help, Lockwood responded, “There is a lot of resistance to pet limits, however they can be a good tool for monitoring the hoarder. We do see more and more prosecutions for animal cruelty because it allows the court to impose a long probationary period in order to provide for monitoring.” The pet limit can be the impetus for the initial call to the site.

An action plan is vital and a high volume hoarder is almost like a natural disaster. Lockwood said, “You need a chain of command and a plan to handle the crisis. The emphasis should be on relapse prevention. Hopefully the hoarder will sign over the care, however the greatest fear of most hoarders is that their animals will be seized and put to sleep, and that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because as conditions deteriorate that becomes the most humane thing that can be done. You want to initiate a response before that happens. Monitoring should be part of the plan.”

Lockwood notes that hoarders share common characteristics wherever they are. “We see this all around the country and indeed all around the world.” He hopes that through education and outreach, hoarders can be prevented from starting their destructive behavior..." More