Dirty Secret

A daughter comes clean about her mother's compulsive hoarding.

Animal Hoarding: A View from the Trenches

Animal hoarding: The who, why, and where.

Recently, an animal hoarding case on Long Island horrified the nation and left many people scratching their heads. One person who wasn't surprised by the sheer number of animals living in such squalor was Gia, who's been working tirelessly for seven years to stop this baffling mental illness from inflicting more pain on dogs, cats, reptiles, goats, and in the now infamous Long Island case, even a baby bull. Gia was kind enough to answer some of my questions about how she began her career and what the rest of us can do to help.

Why do people hoard animals?

There are several reasons: In the case of a rescue hoarder, they believe the care they give the animal is far better than what any other rescue can give them. The rescuer I volunteered for was delusional -- she caused so much pain, but in her eyes she was a healer. It's like a drug addict believing they're the best parent to their child -- yet they actually put the child in dangerous and unhealthy situations, opening them up to abuse and disease.

Rescue hoarders love to tell their stories of bravery and heroism. "I pulled this animal right off the table," "I took it right out of their yard," "Animal control would kill this dog because of its condition, but I'll take care of it and it will get the best care because of me..." Well, many times that "care" means being put in a cage and because the animal might have food and water, being stored in a line of cages is better in the animal hoarder's eyes. In the case of dogs, they thrive in an environment of social interaction; they need to be part of a pack; the stress of being "alone in a crowded room" can cause additional emotional trauma.

Hoarders come from all backgrounds. Some, I think hoard because it is a way to feel important, needed, or even for the attention. Some are lonely and the animals provide an emotional connection they're unable to achieve with people. Many rescue hoarders will have enablers, just as a drug addict would; these people support their habit and buy into the stories about providing life-saving support to the animals.

How did you get started in the field of animal hoarding? What kinds of things do you typically do?

I volunteered at a no-kill animal shelter, and while at first I was na├»ve, after a couple of months I realized there was something going on. I was confused by the lack of care the animals were receiving -- dogs with bloody diarrhea, skin conditions, ear infections, one animal with a broken leg. The reasons for these untreated conditions were always shifting: the caretaker changed food, we just got that dog, unusual home remedies, the vet canceled the appointment. There was an excuse for everything, and the blame was always placed elsewhere. So I searched for answers on the internet. That was about seven years ago and that's why I created  www.animalhoarding.blogspot.com and www.animalhoarding.org.

Now I try to educate the public, and help other rescuers when they are confronted with a hoarder. I also volunteer when there is a plea for help. I've done this several times, by transporting dogs out of the situation and creating temporary shelters until the animals can be moved. I have a small group of individual volunteers, and I always try to help, even if it's just guiding people to resources.

If a person suspects that someone is an animal hoarder -- like in the "rescue" cases you mentioned -- what signs should that person look for?

A rescue should be clean and mostly quiet; well-adjusted dogs will not be climbing their cages, circling, jumping, and barking. There should be a kennel card on each available animal listing its info, personality, is it good with kids, needs large yard, etcetera. A good rescue will do its best to learn about an animal's characteristics and try to place it in an appropriate home -- these are forever homes we are looking for and animals are not "one size fits all." The rescue should have a solid volunteer program where the animals get walks, socialization, and play time. There shouldn't be an overwhelming stench in the air and the environment should be clean. The facility should be completely accessible -- meaning not be too many areas that are "off limits." There should not be a lot of clutter anywhere. If you receive too many excuses as to why things look bad or off, there may be a problem.

What can people do to stop animal hoarding from happening?

Local governments should not allow people to have an unlimited number of pets. For example, Kern County in California does not regulate the number of domestic animals, plus it is a huge county where your closest neighbor could be over a mile away. There have been several cases within the past year of animals being seized there -- so many that many legit rescuers in Los Angeles have started referring to Kern County as the "hoarders' county."

Spaying and neutering should be mandatory in all states. There are too many animals! Also, there should be a national system to track abusers. Stopping animal hoarding would require more states recognize it; currently only four states have it written into law. Once someone is convicted of hoarding part of their sentence must include psychiatric treatment -- without it they will relapse.

Thanks, Gia! If anyone would like to contact Gia, please visit either of her two websites, listed above. To read about my own experience with animal hoarding, please see my last post. And if you or anyone you know has a problem with animal hoarding, the Animal Planet network is looking for subjects for a new series. I've watched the show; the subjects and the animals are always treated with respect.

Thanks for reading -- as always, I welcome comments!  

 

Jessie Sholl is the author of Dirty Secret: A Daughter Comes Clean About Her Mother's Compulsive Hoarding.

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