Handling hoarders

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 1999:

Handling hoarders
by Vicky Crosetti, Executive director
Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley

The January/February 1999
ANIMAL PEOPLE feature “Animals
in bondage: the minds of hoarders”
reminded me of years ago attending a
talk on the same subject at a humane
Trying to describe why we so
often find huge numbers of animals
kept in filth and misery by people who
claim to “love” them, the presenter discussed
“good intentions gone bad” and
“obsessive/compulsive behavior.”
I learned to use her phrases,
when pressed for explanation––but as
the years and cases pass, I’ve decided
that I don’t know why people hoard
animals. Neither am I certain that
motive matters, except as a possible
predictor of who might become a

My duty in any cruelty case,
as head of a humane society, is to
remove the animals from the cruel situation,
give them compassionate care,
find them good homes if possible, and
try to ensure that no more animals come
under control of the alleged perpetrator.
Animal hoarding cases are
cruelty cases. Whether one animal or
100 suffer, there is no valid excuse for
it; original intentions are irrelevant;
and legally extenuating circumstances
such as mental illness or personal crisis
are matters to address in the courtroom,
often as obstacles to effecting the best
outcome for the animals.
In dealing with hoarders, I’ve
had my share of success––and disappointment.
I am still haunted by the
memory of animals probably long dead
who were returned to an alleged hoarder
by a judge who deemed unconsitutional
the police entry into his home.
The alleged hoarder not only regained
the animals, but also regained custody
of his two young daughters, whom the
police were convinced he was routinely
sexually abusing.

Hoarders profess to love their
animals, their children, and any other
beings who fall under their control.
Hoarders’ “love,” however, tends to
be thinly veiled obsessive possessiveness.
They use the word “mine” as
insistently as a three-year-old in a sand
box. They do not want to part with
their animals under any circumstance––even
Hoarders notoriously believe
that life endured in any amount of misery
is preferable to death. They often
also refuse to recognize death. As
ANIMAL PEOPLE d o c u m e n t e d ,
about one in five animal hoarding cases
involves people who hoard the dead
with the living. They may keep dead
cats and dogs stacked in a closet or corner––or
in bed with them.
In our experience, hoarders
also typically do not spay or neuter,
even when claiming to be “rescuing”
and “sheltering” the animals in their
care. Thus we find that most female
animals seized from alleged hoarders
are pregnant.
But fear of death and the
other facts of life to the point of pretending
they don’t exist are only part of
the phenomenon. Hoarders often hoard
inanimate objects along with their animals:
cigarette butts, soda bottles,
newspapers, magazines, their neighbors’
trash, used sanitary napkins, etc.
They are secretive too, usually living
far enough from neighbors and the road
to evade discovery for years.
Be aware that prosecutors can
cite furtive behavior as evidence that an
alleged perpetrator of mass animal
neglect knows his or her conduct is
wrong. This can be critical in winning
a case, since most cruelty statutes state
that the defendant must knowingly,
intentionally or willingly commit the
cruel action or inaction.
Hoarders often are almost
frightening in their ability to one
moment appear tearful, pleading, and
pathetic, yet the next moment rage out
of control. They can also become real
physical threats, especially if armed––
which is why we always assign someone
to watch the alleged perpetrator if
he or she is present during the seizure.
Sometimes we have some
idea in advance of what we’ll face,
including an estimate of the number of
animals involved. We can schedule
personnel, plan cage space, and prepare
the media.

Other times, we just get a
frantic call from a peace officer, telling
us we’re needed. Such calls tend to
come when half our staff is out with the
flu, the weather is bad, and one of our
rescue vehicles is in the shop. Our ability
to respond effectively is among the
best tests of our preparedness.
We follow a very specific,
well-rehearsed protocol. We load capture
equipment, drugs, safety gear,
and carriers into our emergency vehicles;
assign staff to specific duties;
and we immediately notify other agencies
with whom we have reciprocal aid
agreements. Some help provide personnel
and transportation. Most shelters
agree to accept a certain number of
animals on short notice to ease the
housing crunch at our shelter. Animals
already at our shelter are transferred to
other shelters after we have vet-checked
and vaccinated them. If they are potentially
adoptable, we alter them before
they leave, unless the receiving shelter
can do the altering in-house.
We caravan to the site of the
alleged hoarding case to remove the
animals. At the site, everyone puts on
safety gear, we spray ourselves with
insecticide, we secure doors and windows
as best we can, we send in scouts
to assess the situation, briefly discuss a
game plan, and finally enter en masse.
Hoarding sites tend to be both
unimaginably filthy and in dangerous
disrepair. We can’t open doors and
windows, as an animal might escape.
The collector may be present, alternately
pleading and screaming obscenities.
Worse, sometimes the collector is
present with an attorney. Usually––we
hope–-police are with us. The media
comes. Spectators gather. We work as
quietly as we can––both for the sake of
the animals and because we are videotaping
the operation as evidence. We
don’t need a voice on an evidentiary
tape saying something like, “This
woman must be an absolute lunatic,” or
worse, as such remarks can be construed
as prejudicial investigation.
We maintain communication
with our shelter. Upon arrival at the
shelter, each animal gets a number and
a collar, is weighed, is photographed,
and is given a complete veterinary
examination. Each vet works with a
scribe who logs each observation and
treatment as evidence. Each animal is
bathed and groomed.
If we can, we attempt several
interventions before seizing animals.
For instance, we may offer to neuter
and provide veterinary care for a few
animals who will remain in the home,
if the alleged hoarder agrees to release
the rest to our custody, not acquire
more animals, and allow us to visit
periodically unannounced.
We do this for because we
would prefer not to have to seize large
numbers of animals, most of whom
will probably have to be euthanized.
Seizures are tiring, frustrating, strain
our resources, and break our hearts.
Seeking alternatives to
seizure also shows our good faith. If
we try to resolve an alleged hoarding
situation without seizing the animals
and prosecuting the perpetrator, we can
cite our efforts to neutralize the public
criticism that often results from “hammering
cat-ladies,” or “persecuting
breeders,” as the perpetrators and their
allies tend to portray their cases.
Yet attempting to mitigate or
prevent animal hoarding is usually
futile. Hoarders are addicts. Like any
addicts, they will do and say anything
to satisfy the demands of their habit.
The real purpose of intervention
is unfortunately less to prevent animal
abuse than it is to maintain our
ability to respond to it. We exist, like
any non-profit, on public good will and
donations. Animal hoarding cases can
easily become a public relations nightmare.
Alleged hoarders who are reclusive
eccentrics may elicit sympathy.
Those who manage an articulate, welldressed
facade may seem to make a
credible case that they are misunderstood
and mistreated––and that we are
just hell-bent on killing animals.
The latter claim is particularly
damaging when the alleged hoarder
claims to run a no-kill shelter, whether
or not duly incorporated and licensed,
and has received previous positive publicity
about efforts to “save” animals.
In such instances, attempted seizures of
animals and prosecutions can actually
become financial windfalls for the
alleged hoarders, as the animal-loving
public responds uncritically to their
claims and other suspected hoarders
who claim to operate no-kill shelters
jump in, vouching for each other’s
credibility––including in legal actions
against the would-be intervenors.
Lawsuits against humane
agencies, brought by alleged abusers of
all types, are increasingly common.
I’ve been sued four times in five years,
never successfully but always expensively.
Accordingly, I stress that any
organization that investigates, prosecutes,
or handles animals confiscated
in cruelty cases should carry officers
and directors insurance, plus liability
insurance, kept paid up.
Because misinformed media
can irreparably harm an intervening
agency by supporting an alleged animal
abuser, I always call the media promptly
on responding to any cruelty case.
Giving the media the chance for a
scoop tends to make me the good guy in
the court of public opinion. Public outrage
over animals being treated cruelly
can move a district attorney to prosecute
a case with vigor. How judges
sentence convicted offenders is often
influenced by their perception of public
concern. Finally, focussing as much
attention as possible on cases in which
large numbers of animals are seized
helps to bring in adopters, saving animals’
lives and opening up badly needed
cage space in our shelter.

Confronting a hoarder who
claims to have a no-kill shelter, our
first line of defense is to explain exactly
what an animal shelter is and is n o t.
Regardless of specialty and killing policy,
a shelter is by definition a safe
haven, where animals are treated kindly
and humanely. Animals do not
starve in a shelter, don’t kill each other
in fights, do not live in filth, do not
suffer from untreated disease and
injury, and they do not breed.
Authentic no-kill shelters follow
these rules as closely as any, and
are hurt as much as we are when hoarders
convince the public that hoarding is
“no-kill sheltering.”
It may be that the growth of
an organized, recognized no-kill sheltering
community will help to fight
hoarding––by rebutting the false claims
of hoarders, by helping to recover and
place the animals seized in raids,
and––I pray––by standing up for those
of us who do the raiding, triage, and
euthanizing, when we are attacked.
Developing an effective joint
response to hoarding should be among
the areas where all of us in humane
work find common ground.

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