I wrote a blog about a month ago about the relationship between animal hoarding and mental health issues that was prompted by realizations about a contact of mine who was found to having dying animals inside her home. I interacted with her family following the suicide of her husband and her death. After learning more about the situation inside the home, I chose to delete the blog and save the topic for another day. This was done primarily out of respect to her family. I told her son I would revisit the issue later and that time has come. I don't expect you to read my blog and agree with me completely. My hope is that you will suspend your judgment long enough to learn something that may serve you well in the future or even help you prevent animal suffering and abuse.
Not a week goes by that we don't hear about an animal hoarding situation in some form. Local tragedies have ranged from hundreds of dogs found inside the home of an elderly couple, many of which were dead, to a woman who was found to have dozens of animals on her rural property, many of which were dead or dying. If you search for the phrase "animal hoarding" you will find a litany of news stories from across the country which describe horrific situations which shock the senses. Some cases result in criminal prosecution. Many do not. What the cases have in common is a person or people who have more animals than they can reasonable care for who end up neglecting or abusing those animals leading to suffering and often death.
My initial reaction to these situations is the same as most people. The information is disturbing, heart breaking and infuriating all at the same time. How can we not be angry about a situation so out of hand that people and animals live in filth and animals are left to die? How could they be so heartless and care so little for their companion animals? Why didn't they reach out for help? I still have the same initial reaction as I would have had years ago as my focus is on the suffering and death of helpless animals. After almost two decades of animal welfare advocacy, however, my next thoughts look a little deeper to examine the "why" and the "how."
I now know these situations for what they are: animal hoarding. When people think of animal hoarding they think of dozens of animals inside a house, perhaps even dead animals inside a freezer. The number of animals is really not important. The complete lack of care for them, despite the best of intentions, is the key. Mental health experts have studied this phenomenon extensively. What at first looks like a criminal act created by intent really is not and the underlying reasons are quite often the opposite.
What is Animal Hoarding?
This article in Psychology Today explains animal hoarding this way:
How to Spot an Animal Hoarder
The following are red flags that someone in your life may be collecting or hoarding animals:
What You Can Do to Help
If you genuinely believe someone you know is an animal hoarder, whether you are related to them or not, take action to try to prevent the situation from getting worse.
When I first learned about the abuse and neglect of animals by my local contact, I openly said that I thought there were mental health issues involved. I later learned there were also issues regarding spousal abuse which contributed to the totality of the situation. This was a tragedy compounded by tragedy compounded by suffering and abuse. I ultimately lost long-term contacts when I shared my opinion about mental health problems being the cause of the situation and when I wrote that it made perfect sense in hindsight that my contact was extremely critical of the local animal shelter. The local shelter did not cause her to be a hoarder. It just made sense that she felt so strongly about the shelter ending the lives of healthy and treatable animals while she felt she was doing all she could to keep her own animals alive.
I am always shocked at how much people in the rescue community advocate for compassion toward animals while having none toward people. There are some who are active in animal rescue (but certainly not all) who carry an immense amount of loathing for people in general which is just below the surface of their functioning. Of course animals suffer and die at the hands of hoarders as the hoarders suffer themselves. As much as the torch and pitchfork crowd may want hoarders to pay severely for their crimes, that does not always happen. As is explained by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, "animal hoarding cases are difficult to prosecute [because] most states have no legal definition for animal hoarding, courts already assign relatively low priority to animal abuse and neglect cases in general, and many people are unfamiliar with the severity of abuse in hoarding situations."
There is a lesson so many in the animal sheltering and rescue community still have not learned: animal problems are people problems.
As terrible as hoarding situations are, they do provide an opportunity for change and to bring good from tragic. I encourage the stakeholders in the animal sheltering, welfare and rescue community in an area in which a hoarding situation is found to examine this issue from a place of compassion and to try to prevent it from happening again. There are some communities that have created a Hoarding Task Force to help address potential hoarding situations using the expertise of mental health professionals, law enforcement professionals and members of the animal sheltering and rescue community. This approach is akin to a shift in some law enforcement agencies from treating every law enforcement encounter with the pubic as a criminal matter and instead using mental health liaisons to resolve situations to avoid arrest, incarceration and prosecution.
I am an animal welfare advocate. My goal is to help people understand some basic issues related to companion animals in America. Awareness leads to education leads to action leads to change.
image courtesy of Terrah Johnson