By GREG KWASNIK
The Animal Rescue League of New Hampshire assisted in 11 animal hoarding cases in the first four months of 2010, nearly triple the number of cases during the same period last year.
The seizure of 44 dogs from a 78-year-old Mont Vernon woman last month may have been the league's most high-profile case this year, but it has not been the largest -- far from it, in fact.
"A week or so before that, we had a case where we brought in 70 cats," said ARLNH's president, Caroline Boyd. "We've just had animals coming in huge numbers."
Boyd said she has seen a steady increase in animal-hoarding cases in just the last few years, rising from an average of four a year to 11 cases in 2009.
►New Hampshire Federation of Humane Organizations
Boyd said she thinks that popular television shows on A&E and TLC may have raised the public's awareness about hoarding, leading to more complaints about animal mistreatment. The economy is also a likely culprit, Boyd said, since it has made caring for dozens of pets a heavy burden.
"With the economy tanking, people who were perhaps holding on are coming to the surface more because of evictions and having to move," Boyd said.
At the ARLNH, Maureen Prendergast is responsible for responding to hoarding cases and other complaints of animal cruelty. The shelter's animal-cruelty investigator since 2005, Prendergast said the ongoing recession has forced even the hoarders themselves to come forward for help.
"The money is not going as far as it was in years past, and some of these instances are folks who have asked for help, where maybe they wouldn't have because they thought that they were handling it OK," Prendergast said.
Most of the hoarding cases Prendergast sees involve cats, which require less attention and are more suited to the colony life of hoarding situations. Summer is typically the busiest time of year for Prendergast, with warmer weather allowing cats to roam -- and mate -- freely.
Being inundated by kittens -- Boyd calls summer the "kitten season" -- exacts a toll on the ARLNH and animal shelters everywhere. In 2009, the ARLNH spent more than $288,000 on its animal-cruelty program, a cost that included investigation, outreach, spaying, neutering and boarding costs.
The cost to process the animals involved in cruelty cases is also nearly double what the shelter spends on other animals. In 2009, the ARLNH spent an average of $718 for each of the 401 animals it took in from cruelty cases. By comparison, the shelter spent an average of $409 on non-cruelty cases.
Much of that cost comes from medical treatment and longer shelter stays because of time spent in quarantine. Some animals involved in hoarding cases may also have behavioral problems, which means they are more likely to remain in the shelter longer before being adopted.
At the ARLNH and other shelters, animal-cruelty investigators are working not only to respond to animal hoarding, but also to make sure that extreme cases don't happen in the first place.
Stephanie Frommer, animal-cruelty investigator at the Monadnock Humane Society in Swanzey, said the key to her work is finding the hoarders and persuading them to get help.
"Hoarders by nature tend to be more isolated, so they don't have company over and they don't have parties," Frommer said. "People typically don't go into their houses, or wherever it is they're hoarding (the animals)."
Frommer said she gets worried when she doesn't get complaints about hoarding.
"I've had a somewhat nerve-wrackingly quiet winter for myself because I know that they're out there," Frommer said of hoarders. "It's just a matter of getting tipped off to them; that's the problem."
In Bedford, the ARLNH is also working to reach out to more hoarders, even though the shelter has experienced an unprecedented number of cases this year. For Boyd and Prendergast, persuading people to get help means convincing them that the shelter's top priority is helping the animals.
"I want people to know that they should be comfortable calling us. It's not that we're looking to get someone in trouble. We're not looking to make people's lives more difficult," Boyd said.
"We really just want to go in and help the animals and help people get out of the situation they're in." ..." More