Guest Columnist - Stacy E. Smith - condensed and reprinted from the article The Glass Menagerie in Paw Prints the Magazine.
Animal hoarders have never met an animal they didn’t like, and place us (our society in general) in quite a predicament. We’ve seen photos of the squalor taken by the local media — pictures of soiled carpets and piles of garbage — and we can easily guess what will ultimately happen to most of those ailing cats, dogs, birds and reptiles. But for all the neglect and mistreatment we see, we also seem to find the hoarders’ dysfunction quirky, and in some cases even funny. Rarely do we consider the mental condition that causes this behavior as serious as, say, schizophrenia. We believe these people to be ill, but only to the point of being eccentric.
Researchers at the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University argue that animal hoarding represents a vastly misunderstood problem, one that goes far deeper than a few animal cruelty charges allow us to imagine. Despite the attention they get from the mainstream media, animal hoarders have been the focus of very little psychological research. For years it has been perceived as an animal welfare issue, and left for the shelters to handle by themselves. The human side of the problem has been largely ignored.
A group at Tufts’ Center for Animals and Public Policy, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), coined the phrase “animal hoarding” in 1997. It was a watershed moment: There had always been cat ladies, and newspaper stories about them began to appear routinely a decade and a half ago, but they were referred to, rather benignly, as “collectors.”
At the time of this writing there is no clinical diagnosis for animal hoarding despite a correlation with known pathologies such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and some would like to study it more. Is it a syndrome in and of itself? Most doubt that’s the case. But some day it might be included as a warning sign in psychological evaluations.
Perhaps the most prominent psychological feature of these individuals is that pets (and other possessions) become central to the hoarder’s core identity. The hoarder develops a strong need for control, and just the thought of losing an animal can produce an intense grief-like reaction. Preliminary HARC interviews have also suggested that hoarders grew up in chaotic households, with inconsistent parenting, in which animals may have been the only stable feature.
Formal hoarding research generally confirms what has long been suspected: Nearly three-quarters of all hoarders live alone, according to a Health and Human Services report; and three-quarters are women. Almost half are 60 or older, and cats barely edge out dogs as the animal of choice. In 80% of the cases studied authorities found either dead or severely ill animals in hoarders’ homes. It’s not uncommon for cruelty-related arrests to be followed by court-ordered psychiatric treatment, but by many accounts, the counseling is not specific enough, and does little to curb the high levels of recidivism among those convicted.
How do we predict whether obsessive animal love will evolve into something unhealthy? There was the case of the poor, ailing blind man who loved animals so much he figured he’d teach them about Jesus. Reports say he surrounded himself with all manner of critters; he rescued bunnies from snares and removed worms from busy roads. “Beware, my little sisters, of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praise to God,” he’s said to have once told a flock of birds that clustered around him until formally dismissed. This was St. Francis of Assisi, and his boundless animal love earned him not jail time but sanctity before God.
One woman who faced charges for mistreating over 150 pets and barnyard animals, recalled, “Since I was a kid, I was scooping ants out of puddles.”
As she tells it, her collection represented a lifetime of devotion to animals — she ran something of a refuge, and did everything she could to give her wards good lives. Authorities, however, painted a picture of broken limbs, infections, dental abominations and helpless creatures that ultimately had to be put down in some cases.
“I got crucified … I just hope every animal went to a good home. That’s how I console myself,” the woman says. “Afterwards, I had death threats. I’ve been told to come back [to town] in a disguise.”
In reality, hoarding might not even have much to do with animals at all. It may, in fact, reflect human needs. Experts are now looking into the idea that animal neglect could be a sentinel for human neglect. A significant minority do have a dependent family member present. There is speculation that hoarders may adopt a parental role with respect to their animals. This then results in a reluctance to remove any animals, even when adequate homes are available. Many of the collectors emphasize that their animals give them unquestioning and uncritical love. They tend to personalize and anthropomorphize their pets and view themselves as rescuers of suffering or unloved animals.
The question ultimately remains: Are they criminals to be punished by our black and white judicial system or are they mentally ill and in need of intervention and treatment? There really seems to be little doubt that mental illness is the cause, and treatment would be the solution, if help were to be accepted. It is unlikely that a fine or jail time will stop the behavior for very long. Perhaps our system should look into treatment as a solution for the hoarder and the many animals she has yet to “love.”
To read this article in the original form, please go to www.PawPrintstheMagazine.com.
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