It is a cruel paradox.
Animal hoarders, some of the most prolific perpetrators of shocking animal neglect, are people who think of themselves as animal lovers, according to experts in psychology and animal advocacy.
In 2006, domestic animal services officials in Collier County, Fla., seized 31 cats, two rabbits, two dogs and a bird from the home of a woman in a classic animal hoarding case.
According to the DAS report, most of the animals were underfed and sick, the floors were littered with animal waste, and the ammonia smell from cat urine was so overwhelming the investigator described a burning feeling in her eyes and lungs. Yet officials said the owner grossly underestimated the disaster her house had become and the danger to her cats.
The cats, she told an investigator, were her life. She threatened suicide if she were parted from them.
In September in Collier County, a judge banned another woman, Tina Ciancaglini, from owning horses again after DAS officials reported she had consistently taken in more horses than she could feed. They found 34 were malnourished.
Researchers of animal hoarding say dealing with the problem is not as simple as freeing the animals and punishing the perpetrators. Hoarding is a behavioral disorder, not necessarily intentional criminal neglect.
The research has inspired animal services officials to take multiple approaches. These include taking the animals away, banning the person from owning animals again and trying to establish mental health counseling. In extreme cases, prosecutors may pursue criminal charges.
An animal hoarder is someone who collects a large number of animals but gives them substandard care, said Dr. Randy Lockwood, a psychologist who coordinates anti-cruelty initiatives with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Hoarders, he said, fail to recognize or act when the animals' conditions begin to deteriorate.
"The denial reaches so deep that they seem oblivious to the presence of dead and dying animals," he said. Nationally, numbers are hard to track, Lockwood said, partly because local governments handle and report cases differently.
The ASPCA has estimated there could be between 900 and 2,000 new animal hoarding cases a year in the U.S., with 250,000 animals mistreated.
Adam Leath, an officer with Lee County (Fla.) Animal Services, suspects that cases are probably under-reported. "Most of the time with these situations, we get involved when it's out of control," he said.
Although animal hoarding is nothing new to animal service officials, its study as a psychological condition is relatively recent. Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts began examining animal hoarding in a study that began in 1997.
The goal was to study the causes of animal hoarding find ways to treat the problem. Lockwood said the research showed some truth to the stereotype of the old lady with too many cats. According to a 2006 Tufts report, about 75 percent of animal hoarders are women. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- are 60 or older. Most live alone and are single, divorced or widowed.
The two most commonly hoarded animals are cats and small dogs, although rabbits, farm animals and even snakes have been victims.
There doesn't seem to be one single cause for animal hoarding. Researchers concluded it may have a variety of origins, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, grief and anxiety.
There are four kinds of hoarders, researchers say:
- Overwhelmed caregivers, who generally would be able to care for animals but may have taken in too many.
- Rescuer hoarders, who tend to think they are uniquely gifted to save animals from danger but do not see the harm they have caused.
- Obsessive compulsive hoarders, who have a desire to collect. However, they're uninterested in or unable to care for what they have acquired.
- Exploiters, who collect animals for selfish gain. Researchers describe them as manipulative, with tendencies to skirt the law.
Lockwood said hoarders have a nearly 100 percent recidivism rate, regardless of punishment. "At this point, we don't have the tools to cure hoarding," he added.
Criminal charges are not always necessary or helpful, Lockwood said. The key to dealing with hoarders is "relapse prevention," which means stopping them from keeping animals, monitoring them through court orders, and ensuring that they get mental health counseling.