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.
When you think about animal shelters, who do you presume is the best person to lead the shelter in terms of overall qualifications? Compassion for animals is a given in terms of prerequisites, but what about education and skills? Are some people better suited to manage the challenges of animal shelters from budgeting to staffing to leadership to animal care to interacting with the public? The short answer is yes.
I work in a city in which the shelter director, a city department head appointed by the mayor, is a veterinarian. She was appointed to that position by the prior mayor in the fall of 2002, more than twenty years ago. When I first interacted with her, I didn't think much about her role at the shelter beyond her qualifications as a veterinarian. I thought it must be a good thing to have someone specialized in animal care in charge of the department. I have been told numerous times by local elected officials over a period of two decades that they are certain the shelter director would not needlessly destroy animals. If animals die in the shelter, the logic goes, there must be no way to keep them alive.
I was talking with a contact of mine recently about the most important element of the No Kill Equation, the absence of which causes all the other elements to be less effective: compassionate leadership. I was reminded of a blog written by Mike Fry of No Kill Learning many years ago and about which he spoke at our 2013 No Kill Huntsville public workshop at the downtown library: core competencies for animal shelter leadership.
Mike has decades of experience in the animal shelter industry, but he also spent time working at the Center for Creative Leadership for Dr. Mike Lombardo and Bob Eichinger. Mike used scientific data about 67 leadership core competencies to apply that data to the animal shelter field. He surveyed dozens of people who were either successful shelter directors, board members who oversaw successful shelters, or other knowledgeable persons. Based on the feedback, he ranked the 67 competencies and listed the top 22 "must have" skills for animal shelter leadership. The 22 must have skills Mike ranked are:
As Mike wrote in his blog, many boards and municipal administrators select leaders using the wrong criteria and end up putting people in roles for which they are poorly suited. I could not agree more. I know some animal shelter directors with no advanced animal care skills who achieve wonderful results in their shelters and communities by balancing public safety with animal welfare to achieve tremendous life-saving success using contracted veterinary care. I know a particular shelter director who is well-thought of in the business world, is held in extremely high regard by the public and has a multi-million dollar budget, but who destroys about half of the animals in her facility. I attribute this to lack of some of the core competencies at the top of the list while at the same time having personality traits that make her more focused on herself and her public persona than on the lives of the animals entrusted to her care.
All animal shelters need to contract with or otherwise receive animal care services from a veterinarian. But "veterinary knowledge" is not one of the core competencies for animal shelter leadership. Does it help to have some fundamental knowledge of animal care that is acquired over time? Certainly. In the end, the job of a shelter director is administrative in nature. It is not a veterinary job. Job descriptions for shelter directors vary greatly, but many include the following key tasks:
I feel confident there are animal shelters led by veterinarians that function well. I would argue, however, those veterinary talents are wasted in what is an administrative position. I also believe there can be a downside to having a veterinarian manage a shelter that I call Snow White Syndrome. Think of the innocent animal lover frolicking in the woods being serenaded by birds as she interacts with animals of the forest. People presume that because veterinarians have chosen a profession related to animal care, they surely are focused solely on the well-being of animals and would not destroy healthy and treatable animals needlessly. As the saying goes, "this ain't no fairy tale" and there are numerous veterinarians who end the lives of healthy and treatable shelter animals every day. I'm not sure how they do it beyond the same type of rationalization that is used by shelter employees and volunteers which I consider a form of cognitive dissonance.
There is no "do no harm" oath for veterinarians, but they do take an oath to use their knowledge to protect animal health and welfare. The oath states:
Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
It has been argued that veterinarians who manage shelters where healthy and treatable animals are killed (or which contract with shelters to kill healthy and treatable animals) have violated that oath. Dr. Patty Khuly wrote a blog on this very subject in 2015 which I have shared many times. She stated:
Killing healthy animals violates our oath. Therefore, we shouldn't do it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that veterinarians who are directly involved in the shelter death of healthy animals should do so at the risk of losing their license to practice veterinary medicine.
As I continue to advocate for shelter reform in the city where I work, my personal experience is that having a veterinarian manage the animal shelter has been an obstacle to change. People want to assume that a veterinarian would never needlessly end lives. But for many, many years, she did just that. Thousands of healthy and treatable animals were destroyed. The good news is that the loss of life slowed temporarily and the live release rate rose dramatically as a result of political advocacy, intervention by other city officials and demands by the animal loving public. If the shelter director had the core competencies required to effectively run the animal shelter - and was truly committed to the life-saving process - the progress achieved would be sustained. The bad news is that the progress has not been sustained and the city is now backsliding to a degree while rationalizing that decline. The reasons for the decline are varied but many relate to the futility of doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result. Numerous recommendations have been made for years to help reduce shelter intake and increase shelter output, most of which would cost nothing at all, yet most have been ignored. This has caused me and the members of my local No Kill advocacy group to seek a local Companion Animal Protect Act to codify some of the shelter operations and standards in an effort to hold the line against further regression. Time will tell if we succeed. If we do not, the city will have made a choice regarding future operation of the animal shelter and will have decided that better is good enough under the current leadership. This process is made harder when the elected officials with whom we interact state now, as has been stated many times over a period of almost 20 years, that as a veterinarian, surely the shelter director would not end the lives of animals needlessly.
For more information regarding the role of veterinarians related to animal shelters, I encourage you to read this recent Substack article by Nathan Winograd called "Who Decides?" For information regarding decisions related to euthanasia in animal shelters, please refer to this Animal Evaluation Matrix.
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