You might think that as the daughter of a compulsive hoarder, I'd be able to spot other hoarding situations easily. But that's not the case. Because after my husband and I adopted our dog, it was years before we realized the poor pooch had likely come from an animal hoarder.
We knew we wanted a rescue dog and we knew he or she had to be small and portable, so we could bring him traveling with us. On a website that allows users to search for animals by age, size, and gender, we entered our criteria and up popped a photo of a one-year-old black Chihuahua-miniature pinscher mix, with huge eyes and enormous bat-like ears.
The dog's name was Milton. The woman who ran the shelter, Penny, told me that when he was a few months old Milton was brought to a veterinarian because one of his legs was broken. The veterinarian set his leg, but the couple who'd dropped him off never returned to claim him. So, Penny told me, he'd been living at the vet's office for the last year. I figured he frolicked all day with the other animals being treated or boarded there and that he'd been fed well and gotten lots of attention from staff and customers. It didn't sound like a bad life.
But when we met him for the first time--at Penny's husband's office, because she claimed there was "too much going on at her house"--Milton's long, deer-like snout was set in a grim frown, his big ears flattened against his head as if he wanted to be more streamlined for flight. I was sitting on the floor. I reached over, picked him up, and set him on my thigh; he clung there, his long claws digging into my jeans, as if he'd finally found a safe raft on a violent ocean.
He smelled like death, and all of his ribs were visible.
What kind of veterinarian's office had be been living in, I wondered.
My husband asked Penny directly.
"I told Jessie already," Penny said. "He was at a veterinarian's office. It's where I take my other rescues. I kept seeing him there in his little cage--"
"In a cage?" David and I said at the same time. I reached down and covered the poor dog with my palms. I had a feeling he'd been in the cage the entire year he was there, probably twenty-four hours a day.
We brought him home, bathed him, fed him, and changed his name to Abraham Lincoln--apparently he'd only been called Milton for the week the ad was up; before that he simply had no name.
Years later, while researching my book, I learned that sometimes animal hoarders will cloak their behavior behind the pretense of running a "shelter," and will occasionally sell some of their charges for money to feed the rest. I started wondering about Penny. Her story about Abraham Lincoln living at a veterinarian's office just didn't make sense. And her car had been packed with clutter. Then there was the fact that we had to meet "Milton" at her husband's office rather than her house. And his putrid smell. As a small, short-haired dog he shouldn't have smelled like that. Also, the first few times we took him for walks he looked startled and cowered when the wind blew, as if he'd never been outside in his life. And his weight: In the first few months with us, his ribs became less and less visible as he went from seven and a half pounds to nine pounds, then ten.
Abraham Lincoln is better now, but he hasn't gotten over the trauma of whatever happened that first year. He's untrusting of strangers and he flinches at the sight of a raised hand or the sound of a shoe scraping on concrete.
After I began putting the pieces together, I tried to find Penny's phone number. Maybe she wasn't an animal hoarder, maybe she'd rescued him from another hoarding situation and for some reason thought he'd sound more appealing if he came from a vet's office. I just wanted to know the truth. I had to at least try.
I searched our entire apartment, but I couldn't find Penny's phone number anywhere. Nor her email address. I didn't even remember the name of Penny's organization. I must have tossed out her contact information during one of my purges. Unfortunately, I'll probably never know the truth about that first year of Abraham Lincoln's life.
If I were in the same situation today, I'd know better. And it's not just me: Awareness of animal hoarding behavior is increasing--probably thanks in part to the reality shows about hoarding--and as a result, more animals are being saved from horrific circumstances. I recently interviewed Gia, who works in the field of animal rescue, and in my next blog post she'll explain why people hoard animals, how to recognize the signs of an animal hoarding situation, and what you can do to help.
In the meantime, for further reading I suggest Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and her 552 Dogs by Celeste Killeen and Arnold Arluke.
I welcome comments. And don't forget to check back in next month, for part two of this story!