Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Hoarding Situation

With the recent publicity, most people know that true hoarding is a manifestation of a mental disorder.  My topic tonight is not that kind of hoarding:  those types of people are going to hoard no matter what happens, or at least until they are able to get help.

But I find myself wondering... how many reported hoarding situations are actually the result of a mental illness and how many are the result of a truly compassionate person who is incapable of turning an animal away?  Then of course, they get in over their heads, are afraid to ask for help, and things spiral out of control until animal control shows up and starts taking animals out in carriers and crates.  THAT is the situation that I am addressing here.

Because I can see how it could happen.  The need to give all of the homeless and unwanted animals a place to live, a chance at life,  is HUGE, and is never, or at least for the forseeable future, going to be completely satisfied.  There are always going to be people who can't take care of their pets any longer, for good reasons or bad, and there is always going to be pressure on an animal lover to DO SOMETHING about it.

How many messages do we see, on the Web, on signs, at the local shelter, letting us know either point-blank or by insinuation that if a particular animal doesn't get a home within three days that they are going to be killed?  What is the animal lover supposed to do?

In my own life, I see at least three of these messages a day.  And on extra-special days, I have friends directly query me on whether I can take their cat or their friend's cat in.  (I am not saying that any of these people are doing anything wrong at all.  The responsibility is on ME to say no. But I think that is where some animal lovers fall down.)

To prevent a "hoarding" situation in my own home, allowing it to get to the point that I am unable to clean up after everyone on a daily basis, or getting to the point that I am unable to feed everyone nutritious food, I have had to learn to say "NO."  Even if I knew that the animal was probably going to die because of it.  Even if I cried myself to sleep about it, and felt guilty about it for days  weeks months afterward.  Even though I still sometimes have doubts that I did the right thing.  I think that every animal lover has to draw that line in the sand, wherever it may be for that person.

For me, the City of Pittsburgh made it easy.  The ordinance is that no home can have more than five animals in it.  Yes, it would be easy to circumvent that rule; no one would ever need to know.  But I have a fear that it would start the spiral downward.  First, I would have secret animals in the house.  That means that if I'm truly worried that I'll be reported, I stop inviting people over, and retreat into my own shell.  I think that is where it would start.  But when you're over the invisible line, I think it is easier to say, "Well, we're already over, what's one more?"  So for me, five animals is the limit.  For some, even having five animals is unthinkable.  For some, who have a totally different living situation from me, they can handle far more than five.  And I think all of that is OK, as long as each individual knows his or her limits.

An animal lover, though, needs to be on guard.  We need to think really long and hard before adding any "newbies" to our household.  We need to think about available resources.  How much attention we're able to pay to each animal.  Whether anyone is going to be neglected.  Whether there is time in the day to scoop everybody's litter, fill everybody's food, give everybody's medicine.

And I really wish that we would get over our obsession with hoarders, putting them on t.v., showing them on the news, making fun of them, shaking our heads and feeling superior to them.  Hoarders are in the situation that they're in at least in part because they've retreated from the world.  I can't see where dragging them out into the light and mocking them on national television is possibly going to help them in any way.

I also wish that there were more resources to help "hoarders."  One of the most commonly quoted reasons for why someone had too many animals is that they were afraid that the authorities would kill them all.  And...  that fear is actually pretty well-founded.  I am sure that a lot of animals that are found in true hoarding situations are in bad enough shape that a quick and merciful death is truly the best route.  But I'm not so sure about many of them.  I've seen footage of some animals being taken out of homes.  To me, they don't look like they've been starved.  Most of the time, the cats look like they have respiratory infections.  Which can be cleared up with the proper environment and medications.  I don't blame animal control for choosing to euthanize instead of rehabilitate. Rehabilitation is expensive.  Which is where the wish for more resources comes in.  If there were more homes available to temporarily foster some of these babies, then shelters wouldn't be filled to bursting after a single raid.  I believe that some of these so-called hoarders would be much more willing to work with the authorities to rehome their animals if they thought that a genuine attempt to rehome was going to be made, and that the threat of the death of their furry loved ones wasn't constantly a factor hanging over their heads.

I don't know, maybe I'm full of crap.  Maybe those of you who actually work in shelters will tell me that the animals that come in from these situations are always in terrible shape.  But I do know that I wince when I hear about a raid on a hoarder.  Yes, in sympathy for the animals, of course.  I have seen pictures of some that were in truly deplorable condition.  But there's also a part of me that winces in sympathy for the hoarder.  Whether they're a true hoarder with a mental illness, or just an animal lover who couldn't say no, I feel horrible for them.  I can't imagine how it must feel to have all of your animals taken away from you, to who knows what fate.


  1. Alas, death to many of the animals in a hording situation can happen. Kozmo came from a hoarder. She could not bear to see all the animals that were getting put down, so she kept them. Unfortunately, when sho got ill and could not keep up, many animals got ill too and about 50% ended up being put down either right away, or becuase they could not be adopted.
    Wes feels like we does not enough, but we does all we can do too.
    Feeel better and come wish Kozmo a happy Gotcha Day!

  2. You express the complexities of the situation. Yet I think an "animal lover" who takes in more animals than she can properly care for with reasonable food, cleanliness, and space is not showing love.

  3. I agree - it's a complex and convoluted issue with no easy answers, but one thing is for sure: villifying these individuals, be they mentally ill or just incapable of saying no, is not going to help anyone.

  4. I believe the need is so great and overwhelming for some people to save animals lives that they are thinking of their own well being when they do so. They are not thinking if they have the means and ways to take care of an animal the best way possible, they see it as saving a life. Who can stand the thought of death to an animal? And I think they think they are never doing enough because there are so many animals that need saving. What's one more?

    I don't think condemning any one helps anything. Too many of us understand the need and how the system works and mental illness or not, they are trying to do the impossible and save them all. And really if we had all the resources wouldn't we do the same?

  5. I am the daughter of a hoarder of many things. There's a psychological component to it that goes beyond just not being able to say no, in my opinion. There's also a mindset of "nobody else will do it like I can" that puts blinders on them to the idea that others can help. "Nobody else could possibly love them like I do" seems to be a theme that runs through their minds.

    For me, I am a perfectionist. If I do something, I want to do it well. That includes being a pet parent. I want them to be healthy, happy and well-adjusted. I have to be prepared to take care of them if something happens and they need medical care. The vet bills we get from time to time are enough of a reality check for me to remember that we're at our limit!

  6. Excellent post! This is an issue I think about a lot. For me, personally, I agree with houndstooth. I, too, am a perfectionist and that does put brakes on taking in more animals than I can adequately care for. I'd add that I think there are different degrees of hoarding and what we hear about most are the ones at the far end of the spectrum that have actually endangered the animals in their care.

  7. I love this post! And I have often felt those same feelings. Thanks for sharing them.

  8. Hoarding is such a tragedy. And if the situations they show on TV and in the news are any indication, those people truly are mentally ill. They've lost more than the ability to properly care for however many pets they have ... they've lost their grip on reality. For myself, I follow certain people and organizations on Facebook that post the "They're going to die tomorrow" messages daily. It is extremely uncomfortable for me to look at them, because I wish I could save them all and it breaks my heart that I can't. BUT...I also have a firm grip on reality and I know what my limits are both financially and time-wise. I think some people let their heart overtake their rational mind and get in over their head. Lord knows it would be easy enough for all of us to do. I doubt we will ever live in a society where there aren't far too many animals that need rescuing and not nearly enough rescuers, but it's a dream I keep alive in my heart nonetheless.

  9. I hoard things, not animals. Not to the point of being unable to find a chair to sit in, or being able to walk through a room, but certainly there are times it's hard to put something down on a clear surface ...

    However, I will never hoard animals because, like you, I recognise that there is a clear need to be able to look after them all properly, individually, according to their needs. I need to be able to afford to feed them, buy proper coats for them, take them for medical treatment when necessary, transport them in safety and comfort etc.

    You're right, there is an element of mental illness in hoarding. Those who 'hoard' because there's nowhere else for the animal to go are healthier, but there is still a lack of 'brakes'. I took a greyhound once from someone a little like this, who ran their own rescue from a small house. It was HEAVING with animals, and the one we took was skinny to the point of neglect. Not that she intended to neglect him, the food was there, it was just that she wasn't able to be there to make sure he wasn't edged out at feeding time and he simply wasn't getting his share. There were simply too. many. animals. The sad part was that she hadn't actually noticed he had lost weight until she was on the point of handing him over to us and began to see him through my eyes.

  10. Such a hard topic. Thank you for tackling it, with the courage and nuance I appreciate so much from you. I can't stand to look at this directly, but I do need to know. Thank you.