It was almost a year ago that my beloved cat Scotch died. My precious cat, so dear to me, was put down following an illness on March 31, 2010. God, I still miss her terribly.
The day she died, I read an article about a man named Larry Kruger, a cat hoarder from Pensacola, Florida. It shocked me to read that animal control officers found 161 cats crammed into his home, including some dead ones and many that were in such a terrible condition they had to be euthanized. County deputies also found eight dead cats in his freezer.
My rage got the best of me when I read about Kruger. I wrote on this Blog that I wanted to "beat the living daylights out of him." My emotions, I confess, swept me away the day I held my dear Scotch down while she was being injected with a chemical that took her life away.
Months after I wrote the post, somebody posted on this Blog objecting to it, saying that Larry actually helped a lot of cats after Hurricane Katrina, including many that were ill and homeless. "For you to express a desire to inflict harm on a person because of your ignorance demonstrates what a small person you truly are," wrote the poster.
Now that I'm over my burning rage, perhaps I'm willing to concede that Kruger may have meant well by hoarding all of those cats.
And there is another piece of the puzzle that I was overlooking at the time. And that's this: Animal hoarding, without question, is a form of mental illness.
So says an article on BusinessWeek's Website. The article began by telling a grim story about animal control authorities raiding a house in rural North Carolina, only to find hundreds of animals living in filth and squalor. As the article noted:
More than 400 animals -- 17 species in all, ranging from ducks and rabbits to dogs and cats -- had been living in squalor with a middle-aged couple claiming to be animal rescuers. Yet these would-be saviors provided little, if any, food, water, or medical care. "Every section of the property inspected was just more deplorable and just more hideous than the last one," recalled Shelley Swaim, an animal welfare inspector for the state, who was on the scene that day three years ago.
The article cited a statistic from the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund saying that 250,000 animals are the victims of unintentional abuse that comes with animal hoarding.
Many of the hoarders mean well. They accumulate animals over time. Often, they don't see their actions as "hoarding." In their eyes, they're creating safe "sanctuaries" for the animals. They often see themselves as crusaders on behalf of animals. But, as the BusinessWeek article points out, "Some of these hoarders suffer from significant mental health issues, and the phenomenon is as much a people problem as a pet problem."
Another highlight from the BusinessWeek article:
What separates animal hoarding from other types of cruelty is that the chronic neglect usually is unintentional. The vast majority of hoarders love the animals and try to care for them, but often have very limited insight into the nature and extent of their problem, explained hoarding expert Gail Steketee, a professor and dean at Boston University School of Social Work. "This is one of the more disturbing aspects of their behavior," she said. "They can look at a group of animals who are sick and emaciated and declare that they are taking good care of them."
Later in the article, Steketee adds: "It is a sad situation because they [the hoarders] began with the best of intentions and have failed to meet these. They deserve our concern, not our wrath, unless they are among the few who are actively cruel toward animals."
So when I got outraged at Kruger, it seems that perhaps my "wrath" (as Steketee calls it) was premature.
There is also a fine line between those humane souls who take lots of animals into their homes - in a way that is meant to help as many as possible - and hoarders who've taken on too many.
In Middletown, Ohio, for example, a couple has opened their house to about two dozen animals, and they've agreed to be the focus of an episode of Animal Planet's Confessions: Animal Hoarders. Among the residents of the home, which is on the verge of being foreclosed, are "11 goats, five cats, four bulldogs and a Shetland pony." (Source)
This couple is definitely not alone. A glance at headlines on Google News from across North America tells the story:
"Monmouth County (N.J.) SPCA Looking for Homes for Rescued Kittens" (subhead: 51 cats in need of a home)
I could go on - and on, and on, and on - but you get the picture.
The question arises: Is it possible to feel sympathy for the hoarders without condoning their methods or celebrating their obvious mental health issues?
I remember when I was searching for another cat to adopt after Scotch died I went online to a website called PetFinder to search for one. What I found were thousands and thousands and thousands of cats - all within a relatively short drive of where I live - who needed homes.
I found myself scrolling down - cat after cat after cat after cat after cat after cat after cat went down my screen. Calicos, Siamese, Tabby cats, black cats, American Shorthairs, American Wirehairs, Persians, Ragamuffins, Tortoiseshell cats, spotted cats, white cats, wide-eyed cats, narrow-eyed cats, fluffy cats, fat cats, long cats, mischievous looking cats, scared looking cats, cats that are brothers and sisters and hate to be separated and really ought to go to the same home.
What I saw, in short, broke my heart. I wanted to give all of them homes. I knew I couldn't. And I knew a lot of those precious faces would end up in a shelter getting euthanized.
So many cats, so many dogs, so many bunnies and birds and guinea pigs and other companion animals end up going to the same place. The black specter of death hangs low over their heads.
Who doesn't want to take them all in? Who wouldn't wish to provide a safe haven for all of these beautiful creatures? Who wouldn't want to compensate for the fact that we, as a human race - collectively - have failed these millions and millions of sentient beings?
When I think of the issue in these terms, I begin to understand the Larry Krugers of this world.
But then we cannot forget the poor animals that are rounded up in these raids on the homes of hoarders. Many are dying or dead. Many are emaciated. Many are suffering from diarrhea. Animals, packed into a house by the dozens, by the hundreds, with no room to move, consigned to a cramped tomb, left to die slowly.
What kind of alternative is that to our wasteful, throw-away, inhumane social order? Answer: Hardly a palatable one.
I no longer want to find Kruger and beat the living daylights out of him. To be honest, I'm not sure I ever really did. I was sad. I was hurt. I missed my Scotch. And I read about those other cats living in filth, some on the verge of dying, some already dead. Is it any wonder I found myself filled with rage?
Instead of seeing animal hoarders as malevolent monsters, in need of a serious ass-kicking, it is probably more appropriate - and healthier - to see them as the sick and twisted products of a society that is also, in many ways, itself diseased. A society that often places little value on the sanctity of life. A society - indeed, a world - where the lives of animals are typically reduced to stark number-crunching, and even companion animals are frequently consigned to cold and dark and disorienting concrete and stainless steel cages before they're injected with a substance that ends their short existences.