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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 12, 2011

We need to let the cat out of the bag on animal hoarding

Art by Forest Byrd

Each year in the United States, there are over 700 cases of animal hoarding, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. We are reporting on one this week.

Each time we report on a case like this, we wish there were a solution. No one likes to see a cat, like the one we picture this week, blinded from neglect.  We won’t publish pictures that are much worse of the animals that haven’t been nursed back to health.

But the human side of the story is disturbing, too.  When people who profess to  love and care for pets end up neglecting them to the point of torture, something is terribly wrong.

Janet Sharpley, a 61-year-old woman charged with 18 counts of animal cruelty, fits the profile of an animal hoarder — 76 percent are female, and 46 percent are 60 or older. Dead or sick animals are discovered in 80 percent of the cases, yet in 60 percent of the cases, hoarders do not acknowledge the problem.

These statistics were gathered by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, which was established in 1997 to define and better understand the problem of animal hoarding. Gary Patronek, director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy, founded the consortium, an interdisciplinary group including a veterinarian, a physician, a psychologist, social workers, and a humane society leader.

We commend the effort because effective interventions are needed to stop hoarding. We also admire the consortium’s work because it made an important start on educating the public about hoarding. On its website — www.tufts.edu/vet/hoarding — the consortium defines its goal: “To eliminate stereotypes and increase the baseline level awareness of this behavior among those involved in caring for animals, among government agencies, among professionals involved in public health and mental health, attorneys, and forensic psychologists.” Ultimately, the goal is to “achieve a more humane and more lasting intervention for all involved.”

The consortium defines an animal hoarder as someone who has a large number of animals, overwhelming that person’s ability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care. At the same time, the person fails to acknowledge the deteriorating condition of the animals (including disease, starvation, and even death).

Sharpley had over 100 cats in her Westerlo home. Eighteen of them were euthanized because, according to the Albany County Sheriff’s Department that arrested her, they were so “maimed, diseased, disabled, or infirm” that they needed to “be spared further suffering.”

Sharpley recognized that her home “became awful.” She told our Hilltown reporter, Zach Simeone, “I just did what I could. Some suggested I just kill them all; some suggested I just open the door and let them out. My conscience wouldn’t let me do that. I did what I could to take care of them and clean up, but it was impossible for someone to do, and it was awful.”

Patronek stresses that veterinarians and other professionals have to recognize that, although a hoarder claims love and concern for the animals, hoarding is more than a misguided attempt at rescuing them. “It’s not about a legitimate shelter or animal rescue,” he states in an AVMA article. “It’s not about the animals; it’s about fulfilling a human need.”

That need has yet to be fully understood by experts. “For any treatment to be successful, it must address the root causes,” the consortium states. “It would be a mistake for a therapist to consider the problem resolved simply because animals were removed, when in fact animals are a symptom.”

The recidivism rate for hoarding animals is very high.

So, to stop hoarding, recognition of an individual’s problem early on is most effective, according to the consortium. If a hoarder can get help early, animals will be spared and she may be, too. Hoarders, though, are often embarrassed about the state of their homes or they fear persecution, causing them to isolate themselves.

The AVMA policy on animal abuse and neglect says, “When these situations cannot be resolved through education, the AVMA considers it the responsibility of the veterinarian to report such cases to appropriate authorities. Disclosures may be necessary to protect the health and welfare of animals and people.”

The consortium suggests outreach to agencies that deal with animal abuse and neglect. Sharpley, though, reports having a bad experience with such outreach. She says she felt intimidated and castigated, and it put her off from seeking homes for her too-many cats.

It’s important that volunteer groups as well as public agencies be educated about hoarding so the hoarder can be guided to seek help and the animals properly placed.

Once the police intervene and arrests are made, as has just happened in Westerlo, it would be wise to consider a meaningful probation rather than jail time or fines. A lengthy probation for an animal harder can limit animal ownership to one or two pets that must be spayed or neutered and provided with regular veterinary care. It can also include visits to check on compliance and, most importantly, require appropriate counseling sessions and adherence to the counseling plan.

If the root causes are successfully addressed through therapy, the person will be less likely to revert to hoarding — which is good for both human and animal.

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