What turns pet owners into animal hoarders? Experts say look to mental illness first
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT) - On the outside, their houses and shelters may appear to be havens for dozens or hundreds of homeless and unwanted companion pets and other animals.
Why would people who profess to love animals so much keep them in such deplorable conditions? Researchers say there are more than 2,000 new cases of animal hoarding reported each year in the United States. Analysis of a national database of animal cruelty shows a five-fold increase in reported cases from 2000 to 2006, according to a Boston veterinarian who has studied the problem for 20 years.
Numerous hoarding cases have grabbed headlines in the past 10 years. Some involve dozens of animals, others hundreds. It's not the quantity of animals that's of concern. It's the lack of proper care.
"I think of these as little animal concentration camps. It's disturbing," said Dr. Jeff Rosenthal, executive director of the Idaho Humane Society. "The animals suffer horribly." One of the most notorious cases involved Barbara Erickson, an elderly woman arrested twice in seven years on animal cruelty charges. The first time, authorities seized nearly 300 dogs at a Midvale, Idaho, house rented by Erickson and her husband, Robert Erickson. The second time, they seized about 550 dogs at a house she rented in eastern Oregon.
Animal hoarders fail to see what most others find repugnant. Investigators found a decomposing cat under a sofa and 12 other cats in the freezer of Gale McVay's Garden City, Idaho, home during a seizure of about 136 cats in 2005. The home was covered in urine and feces, and many of the cats were gravely ill.
"I'm outraged. They're my life. I love my cats. I've done the very best for them," McVay said then.
Experts say a common misconception about animal hoarders is that they are people who simply took on too much and fell behind, or got overwhelmed, by the care and feeding of the animals they rescued from certain death.
In reality, hoarders compulsively collect animals and/or allow them to reproduce even as conditions deteriorate. They lack awareness and sympathy for the creatures they inadvertently torture in the name of rescue, said the Boston vet, Dr. Gary Patronek.
"This is not about helping animals at all; it's about helping themselves," he told the Idaho Statesman. "It's about helping fill their own bucket of need through animals." Animal hoarding is believed to borne of mental illness, but there hasn't been enough study of the problem for medical experts to agree on the underlying causes or possible triggers.
Hoarding has been associated with a number of psychological disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and borderline personality disorder, though Patronek said the latest research indicates that animal hoarding may not be linked to OCD after all.
Celeste Killeen of Boise, who works at a small, private social services agency, hoped to gain some insight into the problem by researching and writing a book about Erickson.
"I thought that if we could hear from Mrs. Erickson about her life and her perspectives, we could learn something," said Killeen, who wrote a book, "Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs," recently published by Purdue University Press.
Whatever the underlying disorders turn out to be, counseling and monitoring are necessary to prevent the behavior from recurring. The recidivism rate is close to 100 percent, experts say.
Studies of hoarding cases have revealed that many hoarders describe traumatic childhoods, neglectful or absent parents, and companion pets that offered perhaps their only stable and nurturing relationship.
Patronek co-authored a paper on hoarding in the April issue of Clinical Psychology Review. The pathological accumulation of animals was first described in published research in 1981, but the term "animal hoarding" wasn't coined and defined until 1999.
Animal hoarders can be men or women, young or old, and they come from all walks of life, including volunteers who work for animal rescue groups.
But studies show that the majority of cases involve women. Most are unmarried and live alone.
Rosenthal said municipalities in other states have tipped him off to animal hoarders who have moved to Idaho.
"These folks bebop around from state to state," Rosenthal said. "When they get too much notoriety, they move." The Ericksons certainly fit that profile, moving numerous times in Idaho and Oregon. When they were between homes, they lived in their camper, Killeen said.
© 2009, The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho).
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