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Animal hoarders live in deep denial, even as their lives come unraveled

Nov. 22, 2022 Updated Tue., Nov. 22, 2022 at 8:39 p.m.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes animal hoarding as a condition associated with hoarding disorder. In the past, it has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder.  (Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes animal hoarding as a condition associated with hoarding disorder. In the past, it has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder. (Dreamstime/Dreamstime/TNS)
By Pam McLoughlin Hartford Courant

HARTFORD, Conn. – Kittens were being born at a home in Winsted, Connecticut, even as the Winchester Police Department removed some 200 cats from the dwelling that was infested with fleas, the stench of urine so strong that it was overbearing, even in a Hazmat suit and mask.

There were dead cats in the freezer, sick and dying cats all around and it took two weeks to get the cats out of the walls.

Four people are charged with 106 counts of cruelty to animals each in the case that shocked the region. They are also charged with risk of injury to a minor as there were two children, 10 and 6, living in the house.

The first step was to remove the children and connect them with the Department of Children and Families, Winchester Police Chief William Fitzgerald said.

“The kids were filthy,” he said.

Building officials condemned the home, and mental health workers were brought to the scene.

The adult residents didn’t try to rectify the dysfunction before they were found out by police because they are likely animal hoarders, officials said.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes animal hoarding as a condition associated with hoarding disorder and defined by, “the accumulation of a large number of animals and a failure to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care and to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (e.g., disease, starvation, death) and the environment (e.g., severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions).”

In the past, it has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder. Experts said it’s not the number of animals that makes a person a hoarder, but rather when the numbers exceed the ability to provide proper care, including food, space, veterinary care and cleanliness.

In the Winsted case, experts said, the adults likely started out with good intentions – to feed and shelter strays – but without spaying and neutering the cats, they reproduced. Before long, the numbers became unmanageable, police theorized. Rather than putting an end to it or asking for help, they kept going – likely going to great lengths to cover it up.

Even Fitzgerald admits there likely weren’t bad intentions, but that doesn’t excuse the “suffering of the animals” that led to criminal charges.

“I think the family meant well but it got out of hand,” he said. “Obviously hoarding that many cats there’s a mental health problem.”

Hoarders often live in denial

There is no database to track the number of hoarding cases in Connecticut or the nation, as they are handled by local police or with the state Department of Animal Control, experts said.

A Connecticut Department of Agriculture spokesperson said the worst cases to handle are those where animals are in a home where possessions are hoarded along with animals.

“When there is a large amount of household belongings plus animals, the excrement becomes intermingled with belongings, causing not only physical hazards but health risks as well,” the spokesperson said.

One of the biggest challenges in investigating hoarding cases is “dealing with individuals who may have a mental disorder,” the state spokesperson said.

“Animal hoarders often do not recognize that there is a problem, which does not allow animal control to be able to mediate the issue and help the individual rectify it,” the state spokesperson said. “Or they know that the conditions are a problem and do not allow animal control to view the animals or the living space. Without access, often animal control officers can’t obtain the evidence that they need to justify applying for a warrant.”

Hoarding isn’t always considered animal cruelty, but is generally considered neglect and is covered by the animal cruelty statutes, the spokesperson said.

World-renowned forensic veterinarian Martha Smith-Blackmore, president of Forensic Veterinary Investigations, LLC and an expert in hoarding, said even though it’s a mental health issue, the threat of a criminal conviction is important because animal hoarders are so “deep in denial” that it takes something that extreme for them to get help. A court in many states can order therapy or ban a person from owning a pet.

Smith-Blackmore said that aside from the mental health component, breathing the amount of ammonia hoarders do through animal urine can lead to cloudy thinking.

“In my opinion, they’re desperate to preserve their mental image,” she said. “They think they’re living in a wonderland … gazing at the loving faces,” and oblivious to mucous dripping out of the animals’ eyes.

Smith-Blackmore said one of the people with animal hoarding disorder she has interviewed, described her animals like this: “Their little innocent faces look at me like a field of pansies.”

The recidivism rate for animal hoarding is almost 100% , all the experts agreed. Any species can be hoarded. Cases in Connecticut have included bunnies, guinea pigs, reptiles, cats, dogs, horses and goats.

Woodbridge Regional Animal Control Officer Karen Lombardi, whose office covers Woodbridge, Bethany and Seymour, said they have “too many of these cases,” – two or three a year. She said people usually start out thinking they’re doing a good thing, but it gets out of control.

“There’s an insidious progression,” Lombardi said. “They don’t ask for help. I don’t know if they’re embarrassed or afraid.”

Often the line gets crossed when a person is going through a life-altering event like a death or divorce, experts said. Once the slippery slope begins, they can become so broke trying to feed the animals that utilities like electricity are shut off and, eventually, jobs can be lost.

James Bias, executive director of the Connecticut Humane Society who has more than 40 years in the animal welfare field, said he believes animal hoarders know they’re doing something wrong because they go to great lengths to hide what they do and avoid getting caught.

“They’re capable of seeing good and bad,” said Bias, whose agency doesn’t investigate hoarding cases but gets involved when animals need to be maintained or re-homed.

Lombardi said a hoarding case doesn’t have to be about 200 cats – it could be 20 cats if the person is unable to care for them properly.

She said about five years ago in Bridgeport, there was a hoarding case involving dogs and the regional shelter took in three moms with litters of puppies. There had been so much inbreeding that the puppies had deformed jaws.

“The people didn’t think they were doing anything wrong, but they became unable to care for them,” Lombardi said.

Veterinarian Smith-Blackmore said there are numerous medical problems animal victims of hoarding can suffer secondary to filth, overcrowding and malnutrition.

She said they can develop contact dermatitis from exposure to the “caustic nature of urine,” which opens them up to secondary infection. Smith-Blackmore said filth creates a dust that pre-disposes them to skin and respiratory tract conditions, making them vulnerable to infections they might likely be able to fight off under normal circumstances. The animals are exposed, re-exposed and pass the conditions back and forth.

Then there’s the mental stress on the animal of fighting for food, water and human attention. Smith-Blackmore said they are “constantly stressed” and in a “hypervigilant state.”

While the Winsted case includes the disturbing detail of cats found in the freezer, that’s not so rare in these cases, Bias and Smith-Blackmore said.

Bias said sometimes people put bodies in the freezer because they aren’t sure how to dispose of them.

Smith-Blackmore said another reason hoarders do it is because of a “sentimental attachment” to the animal.

The costs of hoarding

Virginia Maxwell, professor of forensic science at the University of New Haven said there are three basic types of animal hoarders: the exploitive hoarder who does it for personal gain, such as collecting donations; the overwhelmed caregiver who develops an inability to properly care for the animals as the population grows; and rescue hoarders, who genuinely believe they are the only ones who can care for the animals and consider it a mission.

The exploitive hoarder can be charismatic and charming and can tie an investigation in knots, she said.

“Your overwhelmed caregiver, deep in their heart they know they can’t take care of them,” she said.

Animal hoarders tend to not allow people into their homes or property and often live secluded lives, the state department of agriculture spokesperson said.

A hoarding situation often comes to light through an incident that occurs that mandates or forces an outsider to enter the location, such as a fire, flood or health issue requiring emergency response, the spokesperson said. Sometimes authorities are tipped off by a person entering to work on the property.

Rescue hoarders will often have a network of enablers, she said.

“None of them will say I have to stop,” she said.

Because each type of animal hoarder has different motives, it’s important for investigators to know which they are facing. As a professor, Maxwell offers a unique graduate certificate in animal cruelty scene investigation. She worked at the state’s forensic laboratory for 15 years and had a hand in just about every high-profile case.

She and Smith-Blackmore are coauthoring a book: “Animal Abuse Crime Scenes: A Field Guide.”

She said the link between animal cruelty and interpersonal violence is huge, she said, noting if you can keep people from being cruel to animals when young you might be able to prevent them being cruel to people as adults.

Maxwell said hoarders are endangering themselves and the community. Sometimes there is so much urine and fecal matter on the scene, the structural integrity of the building is compromised.

Some hoarders will even set booby traps for investigators, she said.

Animal hording cases take a huge municipal response, as Fitzgerald of Winchester Police knows. And great financial cost, Maxwell said.

“You don’t just walk in and say let’s get the animals out,” Maxwell said.

The animals are considered property and so each are an item of evidence that requires documentation. Every animal has to be transported and taken somewhere until the case goes to court.

“When you think of 200 animals, there are 200 vet bills,” Maxwell said. “It’s a difficult crime scene.”

Fitzgerald said numerous agencies responded to the scene in Winsted, and it took a long time to process.

Police found out about the house after someone reported a sick cat in the area. When police went to the door to inquire, they saw all the cats inside.

After the building was condemned in the Winsted case, officials collected the cats and brought them to a former school building where they were examined by a veterinarian before being farmed out to various shelters, Fitzgerald said.

The owner told police she took in strays and wouldn’t let them go because she was afraid they would go hungry.

Since animals can’t dial 911 to get out of their situation Bias encourages family members, friends or anyone else who suspects animal hoarding to reach out to law enforcement or animal control.

“The animals are paying the price of what’s going on,” he said. “Animals can be pretty resilient, but just the fact that they suffer so much. Thankfully in Winsted, there was an intervention.”

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