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Animal Hoarding: When a love for animals turns into addiction

April 30, 2012|By Colleen Ferreira | WSBT-TV Reporter

ST. JOSEPH COUNTY – Is it an innocent act or criminal? Or could it be the result of an illness? We're talking about people that have taken their love for pets too far. They are animal hoarders.

Their obsession with animals has become an addiction – so much so that this type of hoarding may soon be classified as a mental disorder.

The animals just want to be loved.

They want a healthy and happy home.

Some of them have come from a rough past of starvation and squalor, and there is really only one person to blame: Their caretaker. 

"We picked up 52 Chihuahuas recently,” said Dr. Carol Ecker with the St. Joseph County Humane Society. “We had another lady with 3,000 beer cans in her house.

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The puppy that called that place home survived, but lived in filth.

It's a situation that is spreading in St. Joseph County: Dozens to hundreds of animals suffering in silence.

The Humane Society has already seen more cases of hoarding this spring than all of last year.

"This spring we've picked up five different hoarder groups," Ecker said.

People who hoard have more animals than they can care for, and they refuse to let them go.

This past March, more than a dozen Jack Russels were taken from a home in the county.

"This man got overwhelmed with his dogs, he didn't know who was breeding who," Ecker said.

Every other case seems to start the same.

They couldn't even find the animals at another other home, just empty bunny cages lying in debris.

"Some of them are horrible, they're walking through feces and so are the people in the house," Ecker said.

In one case, more than 150 pigs were found – some dead, some dying inside a barn.

"It does hurt to see the animals like this," Ecker said. "This is a person that needs help."

Dr. Gary Patronek is a vet at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University in Boston. He has been studying animal hoarding for more than 15 years.

"Hoarding of any type is not classified as a disease, but there is a movement underway to have hoarding as a global disorder become a new disorder," Patronek said. And it could happen as early as 2013.

Patronek said some hoard to make up for traumatic childhood life events. Hoarding gives them a sense of nurturing.

"The common theme is that there’s a compulsive need to provide the appearance of care giving in a controlling situation," he said.

He said the compulsion to collect animals is so powerful with some hoarders, it trumps everything else in their life.

"The hoarder will pick the animals over the family members," Patronek said.

Behavior like this is extremely alarming and it is imperative to intervene and get them help. Patroneck said hoarders live in denial - they won't claim these conditions are unlivable.

Most of the time, the animals are taken away.

"We never try to take all the animals. Because they need them, and you're not trying to hurt the person, this person that needs help," said Ecker.

Ecker said Adult Protective Services steps in to take care of the person hoarding. And The St. Joseph County Prosecutor's office said it rarely takes on these cases, because people hoarding need help, not jail time.

"I think there are two kinds of people in the world – dog people and people with dogs,” said Ecker. “The dog people can handle this, the people with dogs can't, and it’s beyond what they really know."

What they know is how to collect. And that's when their love for pets turns into unhealthy obsession.

What happens to the animals rescued from hoarding? Some are adopted. Some are housed at the Humane Society until they are healthy for adoption. Many don't make it.

If you see signs of someone hoarding animals, get them help. For the sake of the person hoarding and the animals in danger.

Humane Societies depend on complaints to uncover many of these cases. 

Here are some signs of animal hoarding if a loved one or neighbor may be in trouble:

-       If someone has more than the typical number of family pets along with deteriorating standards of care.

-       If one attempts to accumulate more pets despite lapsing care for existing animals.

-       The reluctance or refusal to give up for adoption when good homes are available.

-       The reluctance to allow visitors in the home fearing they might see how many animals exist.

-       The unwillingness to discuss animal care and numbers with concerned friends or family members.

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