Sunday, March 28, 2010

Animal hoarding an illness ending in heartbreak

By: Brandon Stahl

It started with a few animals at her rural Duluth home. Then Carol said she began having money problems, became depressed, and wasn’t able to care for herself, let alone her animals. Then she started acquiring more animals.

For fear of falling back into the depression, she won’t say how many animals she had or the condition the animals were found in, only that “they weren’t getting the care and they needed and deserved.”

She said she felt too embarrassed to get help.

“I felt overwhelmed and alone,” she said.

Carol is not the woman’s real name, but because she fears for her safety from people angry about her hoarding, the News Tribune has agreed to withhold her identity.

When Duluth Animal Control Officer Carrie Lane came to Carol’s property about five years ago, she said, she found about 50 animals — many cats, some dogs and some goats — too many for one person to care for. Some of those that died had been left to rot.

The animals had probably died of natural causes, Lane said, but it was a symptom of Carol’s depression that they weren’t moved or taken to a veterinarian before they died.

“She told me she left them there as a daily reminder of what a bad person she was,” Lane said.

Carol is one of dozens of animal hoarders Lane has worked with since she started the job in the early 1990s. Lane says she now works with about 10 hoarders who are either getting rid of their animals or working to stop the compulsion.

But unlike the case of Todd Stoehr, who faces up to 69 counts of animal cruelty charges after more than 100 cats were seized March 18 from his Duluth Township and Two Harbors properties, Lane has never sought to press charges against hoarders. Instead she prefers to work with them to get the animals to a safe place and prevent them from hoarding again.

“If I felt there was intention, I would charge,” said Lane, who is a member of the Duluth Police Department. “I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s the difference between neglect and abuse. It’s that’s intention piece.”

Lane said she’s discovered numerous horrific hoarding situations in Duluth: people keeping dozens of cats and dogs and other animals in filth and unbearable stench. Once she found a house where cats were tied up and separated by gender so they wouldn’t mate. Another time she found a house where a woman kept mummified cats in shoeboxes.

Still, having worked with hoarders for so many years, Lane said she’s developed empathy for them.

“It’s not logical, but it’s understandable,” she said. “It’s not forgivable, but it can be worked with if they ask for help.”

Hoarders are severely punished by their communities. Carol, for example, said she has received death threats from her neighbors. She also worries about losing her job.

“People think the person is no longer a human,” Lane said. “It’s like they forfeited their human rights in that respect.”

And many hoarders punish themselves during and after the hoarding is discovered, Lane said. Carol’s explanation of leaving the dead animals as self-punishment explained why she couldn’t ask for help, Lane said.

“How can you ask for help when you’re that bad a person in your mind?” she said. “She was really, deeply ashamed.”

Hoarders often start with good intentions: They’re animal lovers who want to save the animals they take in. But researchers say hoarders often have deep-seated psychological problems that can stem from childhood abuse and neglect, and rescuing animals gives way to a goal of using the animals to feel better about themselves.

“It’s about them, their need to feel secure and their crazy way of doing it,” said Dr. Mary Lou Randour, a psychologist and professional outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States. “What they’re really trying to do is control the animals, which becomes an object to them. … Some of the creatures that they profess to love are suffering and dying, but that doesn’t penetrate them because of their greater need.”

The psychological problem also explains how they can tolerate the filth and odor that come from hoarding, Randour said, comparing the disorder to the anorexia.

“Someone can be near death, but [anorexics] can look in the mirror and believe they’re fat,” she said. “They don’t recognize reality.”

But hoarders also at least subconsciously recognize that what they’re doing is wrong. They’ll shut their curtains and drapes, and close the windows to keep the smell from getting outside, Lane said. They’ll no longer let people inside their home even as it deteriorates and the number of animals increases, either through breeding or collecting.

Dr. Gary Patronek, who founded the Tufts University Hoarding Animals Research Consortium and has studied the disorder since the mid-1990s, said for a hoarder to be discovered would “cause their whole world view to come crashing down.”

“They cope with stress by clutching to animals even tighter,” he said. “They need to believe that their animals are there for them. Any threat to remove their animals is a very deep threat.”

A strong distrust of people also makes working with hoarders difficult, Patronek said. But if intensive intervention isn’t given, the chances of falling back into hoarding “are almost 100 percent.”

Todd Stoehr, for example, probably hoarded cats in the past. In 1997, a fire destroyed a trailer on his Duluth Township property that killed 73 cats and four dogs.

The best way of preventing animal hoarding, argues Jim Filby Williams, executive director of the Duluth Animal Allies Humane Society, is to catch it early. He says the system in Duluth isn’t set up to do that.

“We have law enforcement, social service agencies and animal shelters acting on their own to address hoarding cases, and they cannot succeed,” he said. “We have no formal connection between entities to facilitate interagency cooperation. Each is left to improvise those connections on a last-minute basis.”

With the animals seized from Stoehr’s properties focusing attention on hoarding, Williams said he sees it as a good opportunity for Animal Allies to bring the disparate agencies together for a forum on hoarding on Wednesday, from 5-5:45 p.m. at its office at 4006 Airport Road.

As for Carol, Lane said she often talks with her to ensure she’s not going back into hoarding.

“For a lot of people that hoard, if you don’t keep an open door ongoing, they can start hoarding again,” Lane said. “I would say she’ll be fine as long as she keeps communicating.”.." More