I’m assuming if you are reading this, you know what animal hoarding is, but just in case you don’t, animal hoarding is when someone has numerous animals that are kept in conditions where their basic needs are not being met. That is a very, very loose definition, of course. The reality of animal hoarding is that these animals are being kept in situations that are horrific beyond most of our imaginations. There have been cases where more than 100 animals have been kept at someone’s residence. It’s more prevalent than you’d imagine: Pet-abuse.com lists more than a thousand documented arrests/seizures for animal hoarding, affecting tens of thousands of dogs.
Since I’m not the ASPCA, I’ll spare you the specific details. You don’t deserve that, and I don’t want to write that article. (Besides, I don’t know if you have the requisite Sarah McLachlan music.) The Tufts Veterinary School has done extensive research on this subject, and if you want to do a deep dive, I strongly suggest you visit that site.
Animal hoarding is a psychological disorder that is still not well understood. I consider animal hoarders to be akin to pedophiles. Like pedophiles, animal hoarders’ victims are helpless. Like pedophiles, they are wily, operate in secrecy, and have developed ways to gain access to what they crave. Unlike pedophiles, though, animal hoarders’ behavior is facilitated by people throughout the animal control system, by animal rescues, and by the general public. These groups unwittingly deliver the animals straight to the hoarder.
They can do this because hoarders prey on hope. They know how to play people who want to believe that there might be a chance for a sweet dog, even when logic dictates that there isn’t.
As you’ve heard me say before, blah blah blah I ran a rescue for years. Our original purpose was to place dogs from the home of a woman who was described to us as an animal lover whose tender heart had caused her to take too many dogs, and from there things just got out of control. In other words, she was a hoarder, and to my credit, I was pretty sure of that on day one. She was cagy, she lied, she manipulated. She was one of the most dishonest people I have ever met. By the time we were done helping her, we knew all the tricks. We also knew that she would never stop accumulating animals.
In the rural area where we operated, she and other animal hoarders had all sorts of ways to get animals, including via people who worked with animals for a living.
- Animal control officers, who knew that the strays that they picked up were likely to be euthanized
- Veterinary office employees, who often had perfectly healthy puppies dumped in their office, didn’t want to euthanize them
- Other rescues, who didn’t have room for a challenging dog
All of them handed dogs to “that nice old lady” so they could have a chance. If these savvy people were duped, it stands to reason that pet owners were easy pickings for hoarders – they couldn’t handle their dogs, and leapt at the idea that someone else would love them and provide them with a wonderful home.
It’s Painful to Write This
Even though our group knew how hoarders operated, since our group was started to place hoarded dogs, we still gave a dog to a hoarder.
So how did this happen?
We had heard via email about a Chow Chow puppy at a shelter who needed a rescue. Our group didn’t have space, so we were delighted when a Chow rescue we respected had worked with for years said that another Chow rescue in another state could take the puppy. Some of our volunteers agreed to help drive the Chow Chow part of the way from Virginia to the other state. (Why am I being so vague about the state? Because I don’t want you to look it up. Seriously, DON’T DO IT.)
Anyway, our volunteer helped with our leg of the adorable fluffball’s transport, and we were all happy.
A few months later, we received an email that the amazing Chow rescue was run by a hoarder.
Why didn’t I use common sense? Chows are difficult dogs to place, and they are selective about the dogs they’ll get along with. Chow rescues are always full with waitlists – how was this woman able to take in one so relatively easily? I didn’t think critically because I didn’t want to think critically. I had a big fluffy Chow at home at the time. I wanted that puppy to find a place. And, most important of all, I didn’t check out the rescue for myself. I relied on another rescue’s word – admittedly, a rescue that I respected very much – but I didn’t do the due diligence.
I still don’t know what happened to the puppy. I didn’t pursue it. I just couldn’t.
What We Learned and How We Used It
We had learned a terrible lesson. If we could facilitate a hoarder, anyone could. We developed some guidelines/procedures to prevent this in the future.
- We got the word out. We reported the hoarder we originally dealt with to animal control in the counties where we operated. We told the other rescues in the area, and we warned the vet clinics. We said we’d be available to testify if she were ever charged with anything at a later date. Hopefully we made it harder for her. We also tried to get her psychiatric help, but there was none available in the rural area where she lived.
- We learned how to handle hoarders. We used our knowledge to help other dogs in a hoarding situation. This time, we didn’t let the hoarder play us; we played her. The best way to do it was to play dumb: I manipulated the hoarder into surrendering her dogs to us by pretending to be a naÃ¯ve animal lover sympathetic to her cause. It was profoundly disturbing, but it worked.
- We did our due diligence every time, ourselves. When dealing with new rescues or individual rescuers, we’d vet (pun intended) them with local authorities, their vets and other rescues. We looked at their tax records when they were available. If they passed muster, we insisted on visiting their facilities ourselves to see where the dogs would be kept. We had the home visitors take pictures. Anyone who resisted the idea was out.
Finally, whenever I see or hear hoarding described as a situation where “things just got out of control” for an animal lover, I make a point to correct it, and I don’t mince words: hoarding is animal torture. People need to know if it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t. And most of all, people should know how easily they can be manipulated by a hoarder.