Monday, March 28, 2011

The Tragedy of Animal Hoarding

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:

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.


  1. Thank you so much for bring this issue to our attention.

    I'm a researcher for the series Confessions: Animal Hoarding, currently airing on Animal Planet that tells the stories of people overwhelmed by the number of pets they own. The problem is on the rise and affect communities across America.

    Most animal hoarders don’t see themselves as hoarders, and sometimes don’t intentionally collect animals. Their relationship with their animals has threatened their relationships with friends and family.

    Most of these situations aren’t dealt with until they become criminal. This results in animals being euthanized by over-stressed shelters, and doesn’t address the underlying psychological issues - meaning nearly 100% of people end up in the same situation again.

    We are dedicated to finding comprehensive long-term solutions and believe therapy to be key to this. We can bring in experts to help people and their pets.

    If you or someone you know needs help because animals have overrun their life, visit to learn more and submit their story. Alternatively, contact me directly at or toll-free at
    1 -877-698-7387.

    We will treat all submissions with confidentiality and respect.

  2. My mom is a pet hoarder, has been for years. My family can't seem to get through to her as she lives in the land of kittens, puppies and denial. Mom has always placed the animals needs as a high priority, neglecting her self and her home. What little money she gets goes towards their food first. Mom has lung cancer now, she has never smoked a day in her life. I can't help but wonder if her living conditions, poor air quality in her house, massive quantities of urine and fecal matter haven't finally gotten to her. We often thought that one day she would die and the dogs would eat her but now it looks like cancer will. I am frustrated at the lack of servicing available to hoarders and their families. For now, we are taking turns taking care of her but she hopes to be returning back to the home soon to be reunited with her 30+ cats. My sibs and I are trying to not let that happen but her doctor has told her that she can return home if she wears a mask. If he only knew that returning home is a death sentence. The doctor doesn't know what home is really like and she seems to demonstrate dirt & odour blindness. If the doctor knew, he would not be giving her such medical advice. There is no way that the remaining part of her lung will be able to work efficiently in the filthy conditions that her home has to offer. I don't blame the doctor because he has no way of knowing because hoarders take on many shapes and sizes. Animal protection agencies can be doing more by providing mandatory therapy free of cost to these people instead of charging and fining them. Animal protection agencies could and should impose a lifetime ban on these people for owning more than 1 or 2 pets. This would prevent them from going out and collecting again and again. I am Canadian and live in Ontario, any free resources would be greatly appreciated. As I have come to find out, hoarding resources are an invisible service I might find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow first.

    Super frustrated R

  3. I have 6 dogs- 2 pitbulls, 2 bull terriers, 1 rat terrier mut mix, and a dalmation. and 2 bunnys, I dont own a farm. People think I am crazy But I disagree. I am a Veterinarian. I trully love my pets and take good care of them. I walk them every day- and on weekends all day.They are up to date with ALL their shots. I personally trained all of them my self. I was always raised with dogs in my home since I was a new born. My opinion is that their should not be a rule to own more than 1 or 2 pets, unless the person Is not properly caring for their pet.

  4. My sister and I have tried to find help for our parents, My Mom has , I think ten + cats. She spends about two hundred dollars a week in cat food. They are ferrel cats that she frequently lets in and out of the house.The cats cannot possibly eat the amout of food she puts out for them so she puts the food on the deck for the wild ones and racoons.Her house is not messy but she is old and cain't vacuume. She has medical problems with arthritis and kidneys. No one will help us !! Animal shelters won't help you bring in the animals they only charge you and shake their head when you walk through the door.And treat you like a criminal for letting wild cats in. She has just gotten her second flea infestation and the proffesionals say they need my parents and the animals to leave while they get treated.I don't know if I can get the cats out of the house.I live an hour away from my parents and don't know what to do.Any advice is welcomed. Please help..

  5. I recently did an article about animal hoarding myself, as an project, and while I've known for a very long time that it was a form of mental illness, in conducting the research I did for the article, I found myself identifying with them in a lot of ways. One of the specific cases I mentioned took place in southwest suburban Chicago, with a couple that started out just trying to rescue and care for cats. The wife ultimately admitted that she got in over her head, was overwhelmed, depressed, and more or less gave up, not just on caring for the cats, but also on herself and whatever abilities she had to care for them. Or that's how it came across to me.

    I have four cats myself. Had three, and one passed on due to old age several years ago, and so we only had two for a time. Three was okay, and two was good, when it came to the space that we have in this house. Then a pair of orphaned kittens--so young they needed bottle-feeding--came our way, giving us four cats. Four cats sometimes feels like one too many for this house. I wouldn't give any of them up for the world though. At this time, all four cats are healthy and happy, but it hasn't always been so. Last year one swallowed something that he shouldn't have, and got very, very sick. It took emergency surgery, a one-week stay in the hospital, and months of meds to get him healthy again.

    Sometimes I see posts on Facebook about specific cats facing euthanization if they don't find a home or rescue, and I want to take them in myself. I have to be thankful for my husband's more rational thinking when it comes to adopting more cats. I like to think I'm pretty rational about it too, at least to where I can see his reasoning whenever I want to adopt another cat. A lot of it is because of space and other logistics, and a lot of it is financial: can we afford to care for more cats, especially if they get sick like the one above? But if nobody was there to give me any reasoning against taking on too many cats, I'm not sure I would think of it myself.

    Yes, most animal hoarders start off intending to be a rescue, refuge, sanctuary, what-have-you, for their animals. It's terrible to see it get so out of control.