4-10 Rethinking the human-animal relationship
April 6, 2010 at 7:01 am by Patrick Battuello
“Providing care is a pretext. The animals give them a sense of
omnipotence, literally a power over life and death. This is not about caring
for the animals… it’s about a human need [filled] through the animals.”
(Dr. Gary Patronek, leading expert on animal hoarding)
In my last post, I referred to Virginia Robinson as a hoarder. A cursory
reflection on that word implies benign or, at the very least, innocuous
intentions. But like rampaging cancer cells that ravage a body, animal hoarding
consumes the hoarder and, more importantly, destroys the hoarded. In a word,
stockpiling animals like so many Precious Moments figurines creates a malignancy
that should command more attention than a dismissive shake of the head at the crazy cat lady.
Animal hoarding is a growing problem that, until recently, was not given due
study into its causes and ramifications. The Hoarding of Animals
Research Consortium (HARC), based in Massachusetts, was an informal
professional group active from 1997-2006. Each of the members drew on their
substantial experience in their respective fields (psychiatry, psychology,
social work, veterinary medicine, and animal protection) to delve deep into a
complex social issue. They define AH thus:
More than the typical number of companion animals
Inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition,
sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, …often resulting in starvation,
illness, and death
Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the
impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of
Although there is still much to learn, we do have a general feel for the typical
hoarder and the possible psychological causes. Most appear to be single,
divorced, or widowed women (and many over the age of 60). 80% of cases from one
study involved dead or sick animals, but only 40% would acknowledge a problem.
An accumulation of feces and urine in the living areas was present in almost
70%. Typically, the hoarder has become alienated from other people (family and
visitors are often shunned) and may compensate for severe loneliness or
depression by surrounding herself with dependent animals (although some
maintain normal appearances, including a job). The pets offer unconditional
acceptance and provide an opportunity for total control. Bonding with animals
is easier and safer than with other people (this may explain homes appearing
more like animal dens).
Addiction, OCD, dementia, and schizophrenia have been linked to hoarding.
Some studies have indicated that traumatic childhood loss, abuse, or neglect
leads to the compulsive behavior (often beginning with inanimate objects),
fulfilling a desperate need for stability. A hoarder may defend her actions as being
in the best interests of the animals. Refuge in her house (which usually has
fallen into disrepair) must surely be preferable to freezing or starving on the
streets. Having forged an ostensibly symbiotic relationship, the hoarder is
loath to forfeit any of her animals to an officer for possible euthanasia
(ironically, dead animals are often left unattended in the house in an attempt
to avoid grief or guilt). So, the hoarder collects. And does not see that her
actions produce the very fate (and worse) she hoped to save the animals from.
Although animal hoarding is beginning to garner serious attention,
detecting, disclosing, and coordinating a response remain challenging. Dr.
Patronek (himself a veterinarian) explains that vets are often the first line
of defense. Armed with a knowledge of warning signs (perfume to conceal urine
odor, changing roster of pets who are mostly seen only once), they can attempt
to intervene. Neighbors, also, are obviously in a position to notify
authorities. My sister and brother-in-law recently contacted animal control
about their neighbor (at least the second time for her). The first officer to
visit (rebuffed in attempting to enter the house) counted 26 cats simply by
looking through the windows (there are cases involving hundreds). And family,
often too patient in extending a relative the benefit of the doubt, should
prioritize animal suffering over familial loyalty.
Brad Shear, director of the MHRHS, and another TU blogger,
graciously offered his insight on hoarding. He says that all attempts are made
to work with the owner: convince him to voluntarily relinquish most of the
animals (which can place an enormous burden on shelters), sterilize when
applicable, and ask him to adopt-out to other people. Often, this approach
fails, and a search warrant must be obtained. Other relevant agencies may be
contacted (social services, health and building departments), and prosecution
may be pursued. Remember, in NYS, a felony charge is reserved for aggravated
animal cruelty (Agriculture & Markets Animals 353-a):
Summary: ‘Aggravated cruelty’ = conduct intended to cause extreme
physical pain or conduct done in a depraved or sadistic manner. Prohibits the
intentional killing or causing of serious physical injury to a companion animal
with aggravated cruelty and no justifiable purpose.
So, a hoarder will usually face misdemeanor charges that typically entail
three years probation with periodic inspections. And then? Dr. Patronek says, “The
drive to do this is so strong that recidivism is almost 100%.” In
other words, unless society stops them, they will almost certainly begin anew.
From my perspective, animal hoarding is a sociological atrocity, and a
convicted hoarder should be allowed no more than one or two sterilized animals
for the remainder of her days. She should be registered as an animal hoarder
(like sex offenders) and subject to ongoing, unannounced inspections. The cost
to society is insignificant when weighed against unfathomable animal suffering.