by Vicky Crosetti
Editor’s note: Vicky Crosetti, 1953-2020, for 19 years executive director of the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a founding ANIMALS 24-7 board member, was for more than 25 years a first responder in animal hoarding cases, becoming a nationally recognized expert and frequent conference speaker on handling the hoarding phenomenon.
Many years ago I attended a talk on animal hoarding at a humane conference.
Trying to describe why we so often find huge numbers of animals kept in filth and misery by people who claim to love them, the presenter discussed “good intentions gone bad” and “obsessive/compulsive behavior.”
I learned to use her phrases, when pressed for explanation but as the years and cases pass, I’ve decided that I don’t know why people hoard animals. Neither am I certain that motive matters, except as a possible predictor of who might become a hoarder.
Hoarding cases are cruelty cases
My duty in any cruelty case, during the more than 25 years that I was a first responder, was to remove the animals from the cruel situation, give them compassionate care, find them good homes if possible, and try to ensure that no more animals came under control of the alleged perpetrator.
Animal hoarding cases are cruelty cases. Whether one animal or 100 suffer, there is no valid excuse for it; original intentions are irrelevant; and legally extenuating circumstances such as mental illness or personal crisis are matters to address in the courtroom, often as obstacles to effecting the best outcome for the animals.
Life and death
In dealing with hoarders, I’ve had my share of success and disappointment. I am still haunted by the memory of animals, long dead now, who were returned to an alleged hoarder by a judge who deemed unconstitutional the police entry into his home. The alleged hoarder not only regained the animals, but also regained custody of his two young daughters, whom the police were convinced he was routinely sexually abusing.
Hoarders profess to love their animals, their children, and any other beings who fall under their control. Hoarders’ love, however, tends to be thinly veiled obsessive possessiveness. They use the word “mine” as insistently as a three-year-old in a sand box. They do not want to part with their animals under any circumstance, even death.
Hoarding the dead
Hoarders notoriously believe that life endured in any amount of misery is preferable to death. They often also refuse to recognize death. About one in five animal hoarding cases involves people who hoard the dead with the living. They may keep dead cats and dogs stacked in a closet or corner––or in bed with them.
In my experience, hoarders also typically do not spay or neuter, even when claiming to be rescuing and sheltering the animals in their care. Thus we found that most female animals seized from alleged hoarders were pregnant.
But fear of death––and the other facts of life to the point of pretending they don’t exist––are only part of the phenomenon. Hoarders often hoard inanimate objects along with their animals: cigarette butts, soda bottles, newspapers, magazines, their neighbor’s trash, used sanitary napkins, etc. They are secretive too, usually living far enough from neighbors and the road to evade discovery for years.
Be aware that prosecutors can cite furtive behavior as evidence that an alleged perpetrator of mass animal neglect knows his or her conduct is wrong. This can be critical in winning a case, since most cruelty statutes state that the defendant must knowingly, intentionally or willingly commit the cruel action or inaction.
Hoarders often are almost frightening in their ability to one moment appear tearful, pleading, and pathetic, yet the next moment rage out of control. They can also become real physical threats, especially if armed which is why we always assigned someone to watch the alleged perpetrator, if he or she was present during the seizure.
Sometimes we had some idea in advance of what we would face, including an estimate of the number of animals involved. We could schedule personnel, plan cage space, and prepare the media.
Other times, we just got a frantic call from a peace officer, telling us we were needed. Such calls tend to come when half of our staff was out with the flu, the weather was bad, and one of our rescue vehicles was in the shop. Our ability to respond effectively was among the best tests of our preparedness.
We followed a very specific, well-rehearsed protocol. We loaded capture equipment, drugs, safety gear, and carriers into our emergency vehicles; assigned staff to specific duties; and we immediately notified other agencies with whom we had reciprocal aid agreements. Some helped to provide personnel and transportation. Most shelters agreed to accept a certain number of animals on short notice to ease the housing crunch at our shelter. Animals already at our shelter were transferred to other shelters after we vet-checked and vaccinated them. If they were potentially adoptable, we altered them before they left, unless the receiving shelter could do the altering in-house.
We caravanned to the site of the alleged hoarding case to remove the animals. At the site, everyone put on safety gear, we sprayed ourselves with insecticide, we secured doors and windows as best we could, we sent in scouts to assess the situation, briefly discussed a game plan, and finally entered en masse.
Hoarding sites tend to be both unimaginably filthy and in dangerous disrepair. We could not open doors and windows, as an animal might escape. The hoarder might be present, alternately pleading and screaming obscenities. Worse, sometimes the hoarder was present with an attorney. Usually––we hoped––police were with us. The media came. Spectators gathered. We worked as quietly as we could, both for the sake of the animals and because we were videotaping the operation as evidence. We did not need voices on evidentiary tape saying things like, “This woman must be an absolute lunatic,” or worse, as such remarks can be construed as prejudicial investigation.
We maintained communication with our shelter. Upon arrival at the shelter, each animal got a number and a collar, was weighed, was photographed, and was given a complete veterinary examination. Each vet worked with a scribe who logged each observation and treatment as evidence. Each animal was bathed and groomed.
If we could, we attempted several interventions before seizing animals. For instance, we might offer to neuter and provide veterinary care for a few animals who will remain in the home, if the alleged hoarder agreed to release the rest to our custody, not acquire more animals, and allow us to visit periodically, unannounced.
Seizures are tiring, frustrating
We did this because we preferred not to have to seize large numbers of animals, most of whom usually had to be euthanized due to the severity of their condition and the limitations of our resources. Seizures are tiring, frustrating, strain even the biggest budgets, and break the hearts of humane workers.
Seeking alternatives to seizure also showed our good faith. If we tried to resolve an alleged hoarding situation without seizing the animals and prosecuting the perpetrator, we could cite our efforts to neutralize the public criticism that often results from hammering cat ladies, or persecuting breeders, as the perpetrators and their allies tend to portray their cases.
Hoarders are addicts
Yet attempting to mitigate or prevent animal hoarding is usually futile. Hoarders are addicts. Like any addicts, they will do and say anything to satisfy the demands of their habit.
The real purpose of intervention is unfortunately less to prevent animal abuse than it is to maintain our ability to respond to it. We existed, like any non-profit organization, on public good will and donations. Animal hoarding cases can easily become a public relations nightmare. Alleged hoarders who are reclusive eccentrics may elicit sympathy. Those who manage an articulate, well-dressed facade may seem to make a credible case that they are misunderstood and mistreated, and that animal control officers and shelter staff are just hell-bent on killing animals.
The latter claim is particularly damaging when the alleged hoarder claims to run a no-kill shelter, whether or not duly incorporated and licensed, and has received previous positive publicity about efforts to save animals.
In such instances, attempted seizures of animals and prosecutions can actually become financial windfalls for the alleged hoarders, as the animal-loving public responds uncritically to their claims and other suspected hoarders who claim to operate no-kill shelters jump in, vouching for each other’s credibility, including in legal actions against the would-be intervenors.
Lawsuits against humane agencies, brought by alleged abusers of all types, are increasingly common. I was sued seven times, including four times in five years, never successfully but always expensively. Accordingly, I stress that any organization that investigates, prosecutes, or handles animals confiscated in cruelty cases should carry officers and directors insurance, plus liability insurance, kept paid up.
Because misinformed media can irreparably harm an intervening agency by supporting an alleged animal abuser, I always called the media promptly on responding to any cruelty case. Giving the media the chance for a scoop tended to make me the good guy in the court of public opinion. Public outrage over animals being treated cruelly can move a district attorney to prosecute a case with vigor. How judges sentence convicted offenders is often influenced by their perception of public concern.
Finally, focusing as much attention as possible on cases in which large numbers of animals are seized helped to bring in adopters, saving animals’ lives and opening up badly needed shelter cage space.
Confronting a hoarder who claims to have a no-kill shelter, our first line of defense was to explain exactly what an animal shelter is and is not. Regardless of specialty and killing policy, a shelter is by definition a safe haven, where animals are treated kindly and humanely. Animals do not starve in a shelter, do not kill each other in fights, do not live in filth, do not suffer from untreated disease and injury, and they do not breed.
Authentic no-kill shelters follow these rules as closely as any, and are hurt as much as anyone when hoarders convince the public that hoarding is “no-kill” sheltering.
It may be that the growth of an organized, recognized no-kill sheltering community will eventually help to fight hoarding by rebutting the false claims of hoarders, by helping to recover and place the animals seized in raids, and––I pray––by standing up for those of us who do the raiding, triage, and euthanizing, when we are attacked. Developing an effective joint response to hoarding should be among the areas where all of us in humane work find common ground.
Unfortunately, this has not happened yet. Hoarding cases in recent years have soared in number, and numbers of animals involved, far beyond what we struggled to handle during my time as an active first responder in California and Tennessee, and the numbers of animals neglected by so-called “no-kill” shelters and shelterless rescues are often greater now than the numbers neglected by deranged individuals.