Animal hoarders can be overwhelmed caregivers, rescuers or sociopaths. Go inside their minds and learn what to do if you suspect hoarding.
Just how long Barbara Onderdonk had been hoarding Shetland sheepdogs is unknown. What is known is that she stored dogs like throwaway clothing in her garage in Buncombe County, N.C., and that ultimately, it was someone from her local animal hospital who turned her in.
According to court records, an unnamed veterinary hospital employee contacted the Asheville Humane Society after treating one of Onderdonk’s dogs that was “malnourished, dehydrated, severely underweight, anemic and had died.” After visiting the premises, animal control officers removed 25 dogs and two cats from the woman’s care. Most of the dogs were found in the garage, where they lived in carriers and crates stacked one on top of the other and were caked with feces.
In the world of animal hoarding, where abusers often acquire hundreds of pets before judicial intervention, the Onderdonk case is hardly extreme. However, it does cast a spotlight on the role that neighbors and friends can and should play in eradicating this confusing phenomenon.
Today, we understand animal hoarding to occur when someone is:
- Unable to provide minimal levels of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care
- In denial about both his or her inability to provide care and about the impact of that failure on the animals, their home and other people who live on the property
A one-size-fits-all approach does not work with animal hoarding. Nevertheless, hoarders do share some characteristics, for instance:
- Most are female
- Most live alone
- Almost half are 60 years of age or older
- In almost 70% of investigated cases, animal feces and urine are present in the hoarder’s home
- Sick or dead animals were discovered on the premises in 80% of the cases; and in 60% of these cases, hoarders denied there was a problem
Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD and founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), cautions against generalizing based on gender or living conditions. Instead, he says most hoarders fall into one of the following categories:
- Overwhelmed caregivers: These people begin rescuing or helping animals in a small way, acquire pets passively and become overwhelmed when their growing animal population combines with a significant negative change in lifestyle. People in this category tend to be the most willing to consider downsizing.
- Rescuer hoarders: Most people in this group are driven by an extreme sense of mission. Patronek says they likely “have a profound fear of death and loss. Caring for animals provides a strong sense of identity; losing the animals or losing control is a loss of who they are.” Negotiated settlements, sometimes coupled with the threat of prosecution, work best here.
- Exploiter hoarders: “These people may be true sociopaths,” Patronek warns. “They have no empathy for people or animals. They are manipulative, cunning, very shrewd and can be quite vicious. You’re probably going to have to prosecute them with every trick in the book to have any chance of successful intervention.”
In addition, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) cites these signs that may indicate someone is an animal hoarder:
- They have numerous animals and may not know the total number of animals in their care
- Their home is deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in wall and floor, extreme clutter)
- Animals are emaciated, lethargic and not well socialized
- Fleas and vermin are present
- They are isolated from the community and appear to neglect themselves
If you suspect a hoarding situation, call your local humane society, animal control agency, police department, animal shelter, animal welfare group or veterinary hospital to initiate the process. You may not want to get the person “in trouble,” but a telephone call may be the first step to getting that individual and the animals the help they need.
This article originally appeared in Trends magazine.