Animal hoarders are some of the nicest people you will ever meet. Until you get to know them, that is. They will sound so polite on the phone when they call you right after their arraignment hearing. They are going to go on and on about how they love their animals. Their voice will make them sound so caring and gentle as they tell you that every one of their children is loved. Wait, did they just call their pets ‘children’? Well, no matter because the hoarder wants to meet with you as soon as possible so that they can get this whole thing dismissed. They really miss their fluffies and are just lost without them. Some will even accuse the animal control officers of kidnapping.
While they sometimes start to go off the anthropomorphic deep end, it’s really refreshing to have someone who seems so nice actually care about their case. As it’s so rare, I usually indulge in the experience and I talk to them a little on the phone before our first office appointment. I say things like “Yeah, we’re really going to look into this one” and “my investigator is going to do some work as soon as we get the reports.” The first time I represented an animal hoarder I even said something to them like “and most charges get dismissed or worked out for something little anyway so don’t worry right now.” We all know someone we view as a harmless ‘cat lady’ so it’s hard for lawyers to connect animal hoarding with criminal conduct.
I grew up on a farm so I have a good feel for how real life is for animals. It’s generally not very pretty but the facts of life rarely are. Plus, I’m leery of the animal rights activists pushing cops to ‘free the horses’ and dumb stuff like that. I eat hamburgers and grill spare ribs like all real Americans. Don’t cry to me about those poor animals – pass the barbeque sauce.
The thing is, I’ve never had an animal hoarder case that involved an actual farm or even traditional farm animals. FYI, don’t make the argument to a judge that cats are just like livestock and can be penned up.
Animal hoarders are weirdos. Every single one of them. There are no exceptions although to misquote Tolstoy, happy cat people are all alike; every cat hoarder is weird in their own way. Without fail they all view themselves as the only one who cares about saving all the stray kittens or cuddly rabbits in the world. “But they would die without me!” they all say. Animal hoarders are mentally ill and it finds expression in the inability to say no to hamsters, puppies, or whatever. Most of them are medium to high functioning adults which makes it all the stranger. I mean, how do you go from your responsible day job in a state office or local business to a home that is full of cat feces and filth from the 80 to 90 strays you live with?
I have asked them how they do it numerous times. They always try to tell me that they keep their work clothes out in the car, they get pet food donations, their kids stopped coming by the house years ago, yadda, yadda, yadda. The mechanics are all the same and, in a weird way, a little intriguing the first few times you talk to animal hoarders. But that’s not what I was asking them. I want to know how they got to the point where they let animals ruin their lives. I’ve always viewed people as at the top of the animal kingdom, not the bottom. Not a single animal hoarder has ever been able to recognize the question I’m asking, let alone say anything intelligent about why they do it.
More importantly, though, I want to know why it is they think they are doing something good for those kittens. I have the police reports and photographs. The pictures are often disgusting. I know what was going on in their home and it was horrible. They were slowly starving the animals to death, cruelly confining them, and exposing them to diseases, filth, and crowding so bad they attack each other. When I press them, they always start to look at me funny, like they thought I was on their side but now they think I’m just a meany like those big bad cops who took away all their kitties.
Sometimes I think they hoard animals because they need to have a bunch of friends but can’t handle human contact. Some animals like cats give what you can sort of view as unconditional love. You don’t have to deal with difficult human relationships when your friends are a bunch of cats that purr and cuddle up with you on the sofa all night. Other times I think animal hoarders need to have something that is completely dependent on them. A bunch of animals in the house is a job that keeps them busy and they get happy feedback when they throw down some food. Most of the time, though, I think they are just freaks with a very narrow mental illness.
Supposedly there are three general kinds of animals hoarders:
1. “Overwhelmed caregivers”
This may be a legitimate classification but I don’t think so. These hoarders are said to be the ones who start out with good intentions but for whatever reason they become overwhelmed by the numbers of animals, the physical demands of caring for them, or whatever mental problem they have. I think this classification is a restatement of a false justification by animal hoarders of what they do in the early stage of their disease.
2. “Animal rescuers”
I think this one is just another false justification for animal hoarding. I met a couple who tried to sell me on this one and they say that nobody is saving those ‘poor little animals’ so they think it is their duty to do it. Rescuing one animal felt good so they do another one and another one. Pretty soon they are completely out of control because of their mental illness. Occasionally these animal hoarders will tell you that they are doing it to save animals from euthanasia. They buy into the PETA line that the smartest animals are morally equivalent to the less intelligent humans, we don’t euthanize people, so therefore it is morally wrong to kill animals. It’s the line of ‘reasoning’ that confuses many people into the vegan life of munching on soy curds and wheat berries.
3. “Animal exploiters”
These are the screwed up animal hoarders that I’ve been mostly talking about in this post. They have serious but narrow mental illness that is focused on gathering hoards of animals for their personal needs. They don’t care at all about the death and suffering they cause. They need to use the animals for whatever sick problem they have and they will go right back to it after they get done with court. They will manipulate you to help them get back to animal hoarding. You are not doing anything by encouraging them, except if you encourage them to follow through with actual mental health treatment.
Regardless of which type they are, all animal hoarders know that the local vets report them to the police for welfare checks so they never take sick animals in for treatment. It’s going to be the rare animal hoarder who gets their animals spayed so the animals are going to breed like crazy. Many animals dislike overcrowding and will fight for dominance, space, food, and water so they get injured a lot. Fleas and vermin feast on the conditions and wounds and make the animals miserable, and that sometimes causes them to harm people. Unless they get their hoarding disease under control, animal hoarders will always end up stuffing their house full of new animals to replace the constant stream of dead and dying ones. Even if they don’t go that far, the animals they do have will not be cared for to the level we expect animal owners to follow. How can you do that when you have 300 snakes and lizards in your house?
Animal hoarders are all around us. Do a quick Google search for animal hoarder and you get about 747,000 results. Even if you limit the search to news articles you still have thousands of results. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says:
- Every year 3,500 animal hoarders come to the attention of authorities.
- At least 250,000 animals are affected each year.
- Between 2 and 5 percent of the general population meets criteria for hoarding (both objects and animals).
- Eighty percent of animal hoarders have diseased, dying, or dead animals on the premises.
- One hundred percent of hoarders relapse without treatment.
Did you read that last one? One hundred percent of hoarders relapse without treatment. Lets do some math. Using the number of 3,500 new animal hoarder cases each year, and assuming the successful treatment rate is 33% (a number that I think from professional experience is actually probably more like 5%) then there are about 2,300 uncured hoarders identified each year. They are going to keep hoarding, so in ten years that’s going to be 23,000 animal hoarders. That doesn’t sound so bad when you realize that there are about 60,000 new arrests each year for sex offenses. I don’t equate animal abuse with sex crime, but those 2,300 animal hoarders each year affect about 160,000 animals. If you consider that 23,000 hoarders after ten years will affect 1.6 million animals, you get a sense of the scale of the problem. That’s a lot of cats, dogs, and hamsters.
If it costs the states on average $50 to humanely euthanize these animals we’re talking about a social problem that costs millions of dollars. Just the average cost of euthanizing the 250,000 animals each year costs about $12.5 million, and that doesn’t count the cost of the offenders in terms of probation monitoring, incarceration, cleanup, and real estate condemnation.
Animal hoarders don’t understand the suffering and death of the animals they abuse. They don’t even understand the health problems they cause themselves. A lot of these animal hoarders get lung diseases and other problems from the animals. But don’t try to tell them what they are doing is wrong. No lawyer is ever going to get through to them. I tried a bunch of times and I got absolutely nowhere. The only thing that works is for the court to ban them from owning animals. Even that doesn’t actually work, as they just move somewhere new and start over.
Oh by the way, do you know when having pets crosses over into animal hoarding? I don’t either but it’s generally the point when you stop caring for each one individually to a high level of concern. That probably applies to kids, too, but nobody gets arrested for having ten babies.