By Matt Surtel firstname.lastname@example.org | Posted: Saturday, September 27, 2014 12:00 am
WARSAW — The story has become sadly familiar in Wyoming County.
Hundreds of cats discovered inside a local “cat shelter.” Volunteers removing dozens of felines, wearing masks amid a hideous stench.
Dead and sickened animals.
Then comes a community outcry and — in the case of a town couple last week — animal cruelty and other charges. Such cases are often classified as hoarding situations, as love for animals spirals out of control. It’s a complex set of circumstances often involving mental health disturbances.
“Most hoarders of animals fall victim to their good intentions and end up emotionally overwhelmed, socially isolated, and ultimately alienated from family and friends,” said the Rev. Matthew Kawiak, a pastor and social worker living in Bethany.
Nobody sets out to be a hoarder. At its definition, animal hoarding refers to a compulsive need to collect and own animals for the sake of caring for them — to the extent it can result in accidental neglect or abuse. Coupled with that is dysfunctional decision-making, as the hoarders become mired in their problems. “Animal hoarders imagine all the wonderful ways in which they can save or rescue animals,” Kawiak said. “ They have every intention to care for their pets, but their difficulties with organization, attention, and focus make it easy for them to keep their living spaces very messy with animal waste and clutter. “Many have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder,” he continued. “Hoarders have a hard time letting go of their animals because they have a terrible time making even simple decisions, for example, ‘Is this cat my favorite or should I adopt him out?’” The causes can vary, but studies on animal hoarders show their behavior frequently starts after an illness, disability, or death of a significant other. Or it can trace back to something traumatic in a person’s youth. “In many, many hoarding cases, the vast majority can track back to a time they lost a loved one, a spouse or child, or a career, which seems to trigger that,” said Tim Rickey, vice president of field investigations for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
He’s based in Missouri, and has responded to hoarding incidents around the nation. “I suspect some (of the difficulties) are going on already,” he said, of a person’s life before hoarding becomes an issue. “Then they pull back, and delve into this compulsive behavior. They’re often trying to fill a void, and they’re pretty notorious for isolating themselves.” The symptoms can also signify compulsive disorders, in which people can’t discard possessions — including animals — regardless of their well-being. “In the case of animal hoarders, they’re really surrounding themselves with animals, rather than being a part of society,” Rickey said.
Hoarding’s not necessarily limited to individuals.
In some cases, well-intentioned people get together to create “animal shelters,” which devolve into group hoarding, using a public format.
The groups may even secure revenue streams to help with their efforts. But conditions deteriorate, with a steady flow of animals arriving, and never adopted out. Prospective new pet owners may be met with resistance. As conditions at the “shelters” deteriorate, the situation perpetuates itself.
“The biggest barrier is if they don’t keep their facility in order, there’s not going to be a huge impetus to adopt,” Rickey said. “ ...We see a fairly significant amount of those types of situations, but I think it pales in comparison to the individual situations that are going on throughout the country.”
The ultimate irony may be that the animals and the hoarders themselves suffer. State police who raided the Wyoming County SPCA two years ago in Attica described the situation as hoarding. A total of 518 cats were removed from the building, and more than 50 of the felines needed to be euthanized.
In last week’s raid in Warsaw, the house was condemned, while eight dead cats, and a dead and starved-looking dog, were found on the property.
Yet the hoarders are themselves living in the chaotic and unsanitary messes, often despite nauseating ammonia or fecal odors noticeable from roadside.
Sometimes the hoarders are living outside in tents, Rickey said. Other times they’ll have a small area or bedroom which is relatively clean — under the circumstances — while the rest of the house is overrun. Or they live amid the filth, trying to continue an unmanageable situation. “It’s quite frankly hard to describe,” Rickey said. “These are filthy, unsanitary, unhealthy environments, and these people live in this every single day. We urge people to have compassion and make the reports on the animals, but let’s not let people get lost in this either.”
The ASPCA talks with prosecutors and police agencies when it approaches hoarding situations. But it also tries to get social services and similar agencies involved — a dual aim to help the animals and people alike.
“Unfortunately, most of those cases need to be addressed as criminal cases, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for social services to really look at the scope of the problem, and take what steps are appropriate,” he said.
If you suspect a friend, neighbor or loved one’s hoarding animals, how do you deal with it? Kawiak recommends that concerned friends, family members or neighbors try to visit the suspected hoarding location if possible.
They should try to assess the conditions of the animals and the person.
“Before you approach a suspected hoarder directly — or even enlist the help of others — it’s important to try to confirm as best you can that hoarding is actually taking place,” Kawiak said. The key indicators are the owner’s ability to maintain a clean, safe and healthy home environment, while also being able to care for themselves and their family. Neglected animals will likely appear malnourished. They may also have matted fur, and open or recently-healed wounds. The home itself will probably smell of ammonia or animal waste. It may also be cluttered with other materials, such as magazines, newspapers or boxes. Those sharing a personal relationship should try to meet in-person with the hoarder, to express concerns and offer help.
“Come with an open and empathetic attitude,” Kawiak said. “While their situation may seem deplorable from your point of view, keep in mind that most animal hoarders truly believe they are doing no harm to the animals under their roof. “Try to avoid confronting them with their failures and the animal neglect,” he continued. “Instead try to get them to talk about what would be the best way to ensure the animals get the best care possible, and how much easier their lives would be if they had fewer animals.” It’s up to the hoarder to act, he said. Whoever approaches them shouldn’t have to carry the burden of worrying on their own. Concerned friends, family and neighbors can also contact resources the hoarder can use, such as social service groups, mental health agencies, and professional animal rescue organizations. But they should also be prepared, if the hoarder refuses help.
People may need to help rescue the animals, in which case they should contact local police, fire, or code enforcement officials, who may have the power to intervene. They can also contact animal control. “Without a doubt, these calls can be difficult to make — particularly if you have a personal relationship with the hoarder — but it may be the only way you can help him or her and the hoarded animals too,” Kawiak said.
Treatment can’t end after an intervention. Simply cleaning up a property or removing animals doesn’t solve the issues which led to hoarding in the first place. In many cases, hoarders will begin accumulating animals and debris again. That’s why organizations such as the ASPCA like to get social services or offices for the aging involved. “The days of viewing this as the ‘crazy cat lady’ are gone,” Rickey said. “We need to recognize these people are not just collecting animals. These are individuals who are doing harm to themselves and the animals, and a lot of times they really need help.”
Kawiak said hoarders should not be abandoned amid the fallout.
“Once the situation gets to a point where law enforcement, animal rescue or social service groups become involved, the animal hoarder will need all the support he or she can get,” he said. “Many animal hoarders have few alternative activities to help them feel productive, since their lives are consumed with vain attempts at animal care,” he continued. “ Simply removing all the animals from a hoarder’s home will not teach him new ways to manage his life and prevent additional hoarding.” He recommends people do what they can to stay in touch, and encourage them to seek or continue therapy. “No doubt this support will go a long way toward helping the hoarder achieve a long-term recovery,” Kawiak said. “And hopefully, some happiness too.”