WASHINGTON D.C., PHILADELPHIA–The U.S. Supreme Court in early December 2005 recognized the right of humane societies and animal control agencies to seize animals from alleged hoarders and charge convicted hoarders for their care, by refusing to hear the last appeal of Janet Jones, 55, of Hatfield, Pennsylvania.
Jones founded a local animal rescue organization, Animal Orphans, in 1998, operating out of her home. In September 2002 the Montgomery County SPCA seized 96 cats, nine dogs, several hamsters, rats, and mice, and a turtle who were found on the premises in allegedly negligent conditions. Charged in December 2002 with 105 summary counts of cruelty, Jones was in November 2003 ordered by the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas to pay the SPCA $45,600 for the animals care during the year while the case was pending, and to forfeit the animals.
The sum was within $5,000 of the animal care costs for 2002 declared on the Animal Orphans Inc. filing of IRS Form 990. But Jones appealed. After the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas convicted her a second time, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld the conviction in September 2004. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in June 2005 refused to hear the case. Jones then took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Montgomery County SPCA operations manager Edward Davies estimated that looking after the animals throughout the appeals phase of the case had increased the cost to $267,000, but Jones was billed only for the original $45,600.
“Only 59 cats and three dogs were still alive and offered for adoption at the end of the case. The animals were not only subjected to filthy conditions,” they were malnourished, and quite a number of them had to be destroyed, Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce L. Castor told Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Bonnie L. Cook.
“Happily, we were able to place our friendly cats and found a rescue group for the FIV/FeLV cats. Now we are left with the feral cats,” Montgomery County SPCA humane educator Kim Bonanni e-mailed to other Philadelphia-area humane organizations in early January 2006. “Clearly, we are looking for a suitable placement. We want to give them a cage-free rest of their lives.”
Happy endings tend to be few in hoarding cases.
“Officers of the SPCA testified in court in 2003 that they encountered an overwhelming odor of urine inside the home and said walls were stained with urine,” summarized the Lansdale Reporter. “Feces coated other surfaces of the house, according to prosecutors. Some of the animals were emaciated and had respiratory infections, according to testimony. Dead animals were discovered stored in plastic bags in Jones’ freezer and refrigerator. The carcass of another animal was discovered under an entertainment center, testimony revealed.”
A three-judge panel from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in June 2005 upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit similar to the Janet Jones case, resulting from a May 2001 investigation by the Shelbyville-Bedford County Humane Society, of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Investigators seized more than 175 dogs, an unknown number of monkeys, a raccoon, a fox squirrel, six birds of native species, and a variety of livestock from Norbert, Regina, Elaine and Lorraine Roch. The four members of the Roch family were among them charged with more than 250 counts of cruelty, theft, disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and illegally keeping wildlife.
The federal complaint was filed by the Rochs after the state won orders to protect some of their animals, by placing them in the custody of court-appointed caretakers, and orders for euthanasia of others deemed too debilitated to save, recalled Clint Confehr of the Shelbyville Times-Gazette.
“We agree with the district court’s conclusion that the claims are entirely without merit,” the 6th Circuit panel wrote.
Hoarding cases roughly tripled in frequency from January 1999, when I analyzed the data from 688 cases, to 2005. I found 423 active hoarding cases in 2005 alone.
But the gender, age, and motive distribution of hoarders appeared to be virtually unchanged.
Among the live animals rescued from hoarders in 2005 were 7,244 dogs, 4,987 cats, 1,890 horses, 494 goats, and 1,253 other animals including rabbits, rodents, birds, reptiles, and other livestock.
At least another 2,131 animals were found dead but intact enough to count at hoarders premises.
The total of more than 18,000 animals involved in hoarding cases equals the typical annual shelter intake from a city of half a million people.
Because the animals seized in hoarding cases are usually victims of severe neglect, requiring extra care to rehabilitate, and because hoarding cases often result in protracted legal action, the drain on humane resources from hoarding cases may be the equivalent of the cost of providing animal care-and-control service to a city of two or three million people.
Indeed, hoarding cases cost the humane community about as much each year as the emergency evacuation of New Orleans after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September 2005, with comparable inputs of both volunteer and professional labor.
Animal hoarding appears to have attracted notice at least as far back as the Middle Ages. While many accounts of witch persecution were fairly obviously just pretexts for seizing widows land, in at least some cases whole houses and the animals in them were burned, along with the witches, to rid communities of accumulations of excrement, carcasses, and vermin, which had become a noxious nuisance even by the standards of the notoriously unsanitary times.
The stereotypical witch was an aging widow or spinster who furtively kept many non-working animals in conditions of filth, mumbling incantations to herself and cursing neighbors. Her behavior might today be recognized as depressive or schizophrenic.
The witch stereotype persists as the stereotypical animal hoarder.
Superficially, there is truth in it.
Perdue University professor of animal ecology Alan Beck and colleague Dooley Worth found in a 1981 study of 31 cases handled by the American SPCA and the New York City Bureau of Animal Affairs that 23 of the 34 people involved were female, and 24 were unmarried.
Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium founder Gary Patronek has reported similar findings from studies of about 50 hoarding cases, mostly in the U.S. Northeast.
Randy Lockwood, who has investigated hoarding for both the Humane Society of the U.S. and the American SPCA, guesses that two-thirds of hoarders are female.
However, each of these investigators focused on neglect of dogs and cats, excluding mass neglect of animals kept for economic purposes, such as breeding, farming, and operating pet stores.
Looking only at mass neglect, without prejudice as to motive for having animals, Clifton found in 1999 that females were the alleged perpetrators of 450 incidents (59%), and males of 338 (41%). Responsibility was shared between genders in exactly 100 cases (15%). Nearly two-thirds of the alleged perpetrators lived alone.
Proportionately, the 2005 findings were almost identical. Among the 409 alleged hoarders who were identified by gender, 239 (58%) were female; 170 (42%) were male. Just over two-thirds 68% lived alone.
Among 156 hoarders in the 1999 abstract who claimed to be animal rescuers, 77% were female. I evaluated the 2005 data somewhat differently, but found that among 248 hoarders without a visible economic motive for keeping animals, 66% were female.
Among 158 hoarders in the 1999 abstract who were identified as pet breeders, 55% were female. This too changed little. Among 54 breeders in the 2005 abstract, 54% were female.
Among 125 hoarders in the 1999 abstract who claimed to be farmers or who kept horses other than as rescuers, 65% were male. Among 81 farmers or non-rescue horse keepers in the 2005 abstract, 54% were male, including 56% of the horse keepers.
The gender split among pet store owners charged with hoarding was even in both years.
Of 307 hoarders in the 1999 abstract who kept animals for an economic purpose, 173 (55%) were male. Of 161 hoarders in the 2005 abstract who kept animals for an economic purpose, 85 (53%) were male.
In short, there was no significant change in the gender patterns of hoarding from 1994-1999 to 2005.
Virtually all of the alleged hoarders included in both abstracts became responsible for large numbers of animals many years before running into trouble, typically soon after a death in their immediate family.
Hoarding thus appears to associated with acute depression, afflicting someone who has intensive involvement with animals. Other people might merely neglect themselves and their physical surroundings. People with animals neglect them, too.
The proportions of rescuers, breeders, farmers, and pet store owners, their gender balance, and their age stratification all appear to reflect nothing more noteworthy than their relative proportions in society.
Male hoarders in both abstracts appeared to be more likely than women to get into trouble for mass neglect early in life:
Ages of alleged animal hoarders
1999 2005 1999 2005
Under 30 8% 11% 15% 13%
30 to 39 12% 13% 14% 15%
40 to 49 27% 39% 27% 34%
50 to 59 26% 19% 16% 21%
60 to 69 15% 14% 16% 14%
70 and up 16% 11% 12% 3%
However, above age 59, the differing age skews by gender are chiefly suggestive of the earlier average male age of death, especially among single people and depressive personalities. Probably fewer men are caught hoarding animals after age 50 only because fewer of those who might hoard are still alive.
The most meaningful change in the age stratification of hoarders is that middle-aged female hoarders seem to be running into trouble sooner. This may reflect increased public recognition of hoarding behavior.
Of the hoarding cases known to me that were before the courts in 2005, at least 22% brought a conviction. The actual conviction rate may be much higher because of non-reported plea bargains.
This was a big improvement from 1999 and earlier, when I found that people who were convicted of neglecting individual animals typically drew stiffer sentences than people who neglected many. The conviction rate then, in reported cases, appeared to be under 10%.
Conviction rates vary markedly with the reasons why hoarders have animals. Convicted in 2005 were 57% of the pet store owners, 41% of the breeders, 30% of the rescuers who had formed humane organizations, 25% of the horse keepers, 17% of the hoarders who rescued or otherwise kept dogs and cats without institutional arrangements, 16% of the hoarders whose victims included children, elderly people, or disabled people, and 16% of the hoarders who specifically hoarded pit bulls, an emerging phenomenon that was not even visible in 1999.
Of the 19 pit bull hoarders identified by gender, 13 were male; 11 were under age 40. Breeding, rescuing, and fighting were often all mentioned as motives by the suspects. Several appeared to be doing all three, by their own definitions, having rescued fighting dogs for stud use, with intent to use some of the offspring to fight.
A further indication that hoarding is now better recognized, bringing earlier intervention, is that the percentages of hoarders collecting dogs and cats are down, along with the numbers of animals found in their custody.
What this suggests is that people who start out with large numbers of dogs or cats seem to be getting less time to diversify into hoarding other species.
Hoarders caught with dogs were 54% of the 1999 sample, but only 50% of the 2005 sample. Hoarders who kept dogs had an average of 54 in 1994-1999, but only 35 in 2005, a 54% improvement.
Hoarders caught with cats were 33% of the 1999 sample, but only 30% of the 2005 sample. Hoarders who kept cats had an average of 48 in 1994-1999, but only 39 in 2005, a 23% improvement.
Among the remaining hoarders in the 2005 abstract, 27% kept horses, averaging 18 apiece, virtually unchanged from the 1994-1999 average of 19 apiece.
Nine percent hoarded birds, averaging 31 each, while 14% hoarded other species, averaging 19 each.
Dead animals were found in 22% of hoarding situations, up from 17% in 1994-1999. This difference may also reflect earlier intervention, giving starving animals less time to consume each other’s remains.
I found that in 1994-1999, 28 alleged hoarders, including about a third of the women under age 40, kept a total of 44 children in approximately the same conditions as the animals in their custody often caged, starved, in filth, suffering from untreated illness and injury.
Eleven alleged hoarders kept a total of 12 senior citizens in such conditions. The human victim was in nine cases a parent.
In 2005, 24 alleged hoarders in 12 households kept 44 human victims.
The alleged people-hoarders included seven men and 17 women: 55% of the women under age 40. The victims were 41 minor children, two senior citizens, and one mentally handicapped 47-year-old man.
In two more cases teenagers were charged as accessory offenders even though they had barely reached the age of majority, to remove the teenagers from situations that they seemed to have had little to do with creating, but had been unable to escape.
The number of cases involving human victims surged fivefold over the 1994-1999 rate of discovery. This might indicate either a general decline in the state of U.S. social services, or the outcome of cross-training, which has enabled many more humane workers and animal control officers to respond effectively when they see neglected humans at a hoarding scene.
In 1994-1999 I made no effort to distinguish individual self-defined rescuers who were caught hoarding from hoarders who had established nonprofit organizations, opened shelters and sanctuaries, set up web sites, and/or took other measures to institutionally define themselves.
Yet many of the most prolific hoarders in the 1994-1999 abstract fit that definition.
All 37 institutional hoarders in the 2005 survey had fewer animals, combined, than just the most memorable half dozen had among those who were caught in 1994-1999.
However, puppy mill operators, caught with an average of 84 dogs apiece, were the only hoarder category to keep more dogs, cats, or horses than institutional rescuers turned hoarder.
Seventeen institutional dog-and-cat rescue hoarding situations, involving eight male and 19 female perpetrators, kept an average of 71 dogs and 56 cats (about half again as many as the average for individual dog and cat hoarders), plus one bird, with 32 dead animals found on their premises.
Ten institutional horse rescue hoarding situations kept an average of 39 horses and surrendered 23% of all the horses who were rescued from mass neglect during 2005.