Not any more

Animal hoarding results in tragic consequences

In Canada on August 29, 2010 at 17:15

Animal hoarding results in tragic consequences

Bill Bruse is Calgary's bylaw and animal services chief.

Bill Bruse is Calgary’s bylaw and animal services chief.

Photograph by: Archive, Calgary Herald

Neighbours usually notice the smell first. An unfathomably wretched ammonia stench seeps into the floors and poisons the frame.

Most times, these homes can’t be saved. Neither the people can be helped, nor the animals they collect and breed.

Long brushed off as eccentricity, hoarding behaviours are gaining a new recognition as a unique mental disorder characterized by an almost obsessive accumulation of animals, junk or incomprehensible collections. But when the objects collected are living pets, hoarding can lead to tragic consequences.

Elaine Birchall, an Ottawa-based social worker and hoarding specialist, once walked into a home to find two freezers accumulated with the bodies of 300 cats.

At this point, a hoarder has little hope for recovery.

“The prognosis is very poor. The animals and the people are quite ill by the time severe cases are found,” she said.

A hoarder’s appetite for objects and pets can be insatiable. It consumes homes, creates fire hazards and obstructs a happy life. Cat and dog populations in these conditions multiply uncontrollably, leading to incest, disease and the most abject squalor.

Bill Bruce, Calgary’s bylaw and animal services chief, has seen cat populations inbreed, causing major genetic defects. In one home, Bruce saw cats turn cannibalistic for lack of food.

“In one (case), I actually saw chlamydia in the eye of the cat,” he said.

In the middle of the chaos, sit the hoarders.

Often, they seem themselves as heroes, or animal rescuers seemingly oblivious to a home buried in feces and death.

To deal with problem pet populations, many municipalities have passed caps on the number of animals one can own. Edmonton limits its residents to owning no more than three dogs and six cats.

Last month, Medicine Hat also passed a controversial bylaw that limits pet owners.

Although Calgary has no cap on the number of animals one can own, Bruce said he said he sees about one or two cases of hoarding per year.

Not everyone who has a large number of pets is a hoarder.

“A hoarder is someone who’s lost control of the situation or is even aware of it. Those are few and far between,” Bruce said. “The sharp point is the quality of care given.”

Multiple pets are only considered a problem if the owner doesn’t provide proper care.

Bruce encountered the worst example of hoarding in Calgary in 2006, when a southeast home was to be raided.

It held almost 100 animals, most of them inbred. Inside, cats lay sprawled across every surface of the home. The walls were coated in urine.

“The picture when we entered was 99 cats and one paranoid dog,” he said. “And the ammonia stench, I went in first and literally just opened every window in the place just to get some air in.”

The home was salvaged and the owner eventually moved back. Most of the animals had to be destroyed.

Kerry Donnelly eventually pleaded guilty to neglect.

At the time, she told reporters: “I don’t give a damn what the public thinks. They’ve accused me of the nastiest things. . . . How can you be guilty of loving your animals?”

She believed she had sacrificed her home and comfort for the care of the award-winning Turkish-Angora hybrids.

The scene was described as a breeding hobby that spun out of control.

“It’s like Sophie’s Choice for an owner to decide who goes and who stays. It’s incredibly emotional and hurtful to choose. It’s an emotional strain that sucks the life out of you,” Donnelly said.

Other cases of animal hoarding have come to light recently.

In March, more than 500 rabbits were found freely hopping, defecating and breeding in an Edmonton home. It was the second time authorities had been called to clear out hundreds of hares.

In another Calgary case in Lakeview, Bruce said one woman had to be escorted to hospital because she had inhaled an unhealthy dose of ammonia — the product of an uncontrolled cat collection.

Experts say such caps do little to help hoarders.

By the time authorities are called, the animals are ill, the house is unfit and the mental health of the hoarder is declining. That’s why experts in the field are lobbying to have the disorder added to the next edition of the diagnostic bible of mental illness. With designation will come funding and more research. Both are badly needed.

There are few reliable statistics to illustrate the size of the problem in Canada.

Once thought to be a subset of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, early research suggests hoarding alone may be present in between one and 2.5 per cent of the American population. Animal hoarding is rarer; it’s believed to be prevalent in 88 out of 100,000 people.

Elaine said if you extrapolate those statistics to Canada, Calgary could be home to more than 900 animal hoarders.

However, Bruce is skeptical of those estimates. Animal hoarding tends to be less common in high-density areas, he said, where apartment blocks and neighbours make the habit difficult to hide.

Birchall said people living in squalor are at the furthermost edges of a long-term mental disorder.

Gary Patronek, a veterinary epidemiologist with the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, said animal hoarders tend to have several factors in common; they typically suffer from neglect or inconsistency in childhood that causes them to form unhealthy attachments to animals.

“Most see the primary relationships in their lives are with animals, not with people,” Birchall said.

The pets provide hoarders with unconditional love and self esteem. The collection usually becomes uncontrollable after a major trauma, or in tandem with another mental disorder; care declines, vets are ignored and the animals breed.

Before long, the hoarders are picking their way between corpses. Denial is endemic.

“These people didn’t set out to be abusers,” Birchall said, adding most hoarders suffer debilitating financial, mental and health repercussions because of the illness. “Often, they believe they’re rescuing the animal.”

Birchall recalled one case of a woman who lived with 127 animals in a double-wide trailer.

“She had all but bankrupted herself,” she said. “It was a profound loss when the animals were apprehended. It was like having her children apprehended.”

Patronek said hoarding has long been a hidden condition. Its causes and cures remain largely mysterious.

What is known is that enforcement is rarely effective. Patronek said recidivism rates are high. The vast majority of hoarders can’t stop, even after getting help.

“There isn’t any training or professional education in it, so we’re kind of breaking new ground,” he said. “We’re trying to increase the number of professionals who understand.”

That’s why the disorder’s inclusion into the diagnostic manual is so important, he said. If social workers and psychiatrists can better understand the disease, they hope to be able to help before animals die and hoarders lose control.

Because it’s not a widely recognized condition, Birchall said hoarders can go to great lengths to hide the problem. They suffer shame.

“Many years later, when they have recovered perspective and realize what they’ve done to those animals, the realizations have haunted them.”

jgerson@theherald.canwest. com

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