The Horror of Hoarding
Animal hoarders used to be referred to as animal collectors. The typical stereotype is the crazy cat lady — probably because cats are the most common animal involved. Animal hoarding is a problem that places families and communities, not just animals, at risk.
The problem of animal hoarding is poorly understood. It has been compared to delusional disorders, early-onset dementia, and obsessive-compulsive disorders but none of these adequately explain the disorder.
Hoarding is comprised of three intertwined groups of problem behaviors; acquisition, saving and disorganization. Much like people who hoard possessions, animal hoarders often don’t recognize that they have a problem. Animal hoarders commonly have a persistent and very powerful belief that they provide proper care for their animals, despite strong evidence to the contrary.
The Tufts Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium has an excellent website with detailed information on recognizing animal hoarders and providing interventions in animal hoarding cases. According to Tufts, animal hoarding is defined by four characteristics:
· failure to provide minimal standards of sanitation, space, nutrition, and veterinary care for the animals;
· inability to recognize the effects of this failure on the welfare of the animals, human members of the household, and the environment;
· obsessive attempts to accumulate or maintain a collection of animals in the face of progressively deteriorating conditions, and
· denial or minimization of problems and living conditions
There are three general types of animal hoarders:
The Overwhelmed Caregiver has some awareness of their problem and has typically acquired their animal passively. Their problem is typically triggered by a change in circumstances. While they are initially able to provide proper care for their animals, as more are acquired they become overwhelmed and lose the ability to provide even minimal care for the growing population. They lack problem-solving skills, see their animals as family members and usually live socially isolated lives. Their sense of self-esteem is strongly linked to their perceived role as caretakers. Being passive and cooperative, they are generally the easiest group to work with as they don’t usually have problems with authority.
The Rescue Hoarder is a person who on a mission that has turned into a compulsion. They start out planning to rescue animals so they can be adopted but end up hoarding. These individuals actively acquire animals and believe that they are the only ones who can adequately care for them. They may have an extensive network of enablers and may not live with their animals. Because they perceive of themselves as superior care-givers and believe they hold the animals for their own good, they are typically more difficult to intervene with than the overwhelmed caregiver.
An Exploiter Hoarder tends to have some sociopathic characteristics. They lack empathy for people and animals and are indifferent to the harm they cause. These individuals actively reject outsiders’ concerns, lack senses guilt and remorse, are manipulative and cunning and are often superficially charming and charismatic. They see themselves as experts who need to control the situation and resist attempts to intervene in an aggressive way. These hoarders sometimes make plans to evade the law or “beat the system”, by doing things like hiding their animals with other hoarders or friends when threatened.
Sadly recidivism in animal hoarding cases is nearly 100%.
According to Tufts:
Hoarders may struggle with self-esteem and with finding their identity and purpose in life. They attach themselves to an image. Therefore, the hoarded animals may play a central role in their lives, which makes the resulting conditions that much more problematic.
Behavioral changes are difficult for everyone but, as a group, animal hoarders are particularly resistant to change. Compounding the problem is the fact that there is no established psychotherapeutic intervention proven to be effective in these cases. Some hoarders will resume their activities even after being prosecuted and jailed. And unfortunately determined hoarders can rarely be prevented from resuming their compulsive, controlling behavior.