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Hilltown Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 12, 2011

Arrested for hoarding more than 100 cats
Sharpley says, “I did what I could to take care of them…”

By Zach Simeone

WESTERLO — Janet Sharpley is facing animal cruelty charges for hoarding more than 100 cats, many of them unhealthy, in her Westerlo home. But Sharpley maintains that she intended the animals no harm. And, while she had initially sought assistance in finding homes for the cats, she says that fear and intimidation squelched her search for help.

“I got threatened by the attitude and the castigation,” Sharpley, 61, told The Enterprise. “One person threatened to call the police. This person was known as someone who deals with kitties. She said, if I didn’t give her my address immediately, she would call the police. To this day, I don’t understand it.”

Last week, Sharpley shared her story with The Enterprise, and clinical psychologist Dr. Rudy Nydegger delved into the psychology behind animal hoarding. Nydegger teaches classes in Union’s psychology department and its graduate management department, and is a former dean of students. He is also the chief of Ellis Hospital’s psychology division.

Sharpley was charged on May 5 with 18 counts of animal cruelty — each count a misdemeanor — as 18 of the cats removed from her home were so “maimed, diseased, disabled, or infirm,” that they had to be euthanized “to be spared further suffering,” according to the Albany County Sheriff’s Department, which made the arrest.

In March, the Albany County Health Department responded to a call from an anonymous source, which alleged that Sharpley was collecting cats in her home. The department gave Sharpley 30 days to convert her home into a safer environment. At that point, the department removed close to 50 cats from her home and brought them to various shelters.

On a weekend in mid-April, Sharpley gave away close to 25 more cats, the sheriff’s department said; the following Monday, the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society removed the remaining 42. The 18 cats euthanized were among those 42.

But this started years ago, according to Sharpley, though she could not remember exactly when she took in the first cat.

Thought process

“It started with one animal showing up at my doorstep,” Sharpley, who has lived in the Hilltowns for 20 years, explained last week. “We gave him some food; I noticed in the yard there were many animals, and found out it was normal in the area to let cats just stay outside. I love animals, and I started bringing them in.” She refers to herself and her ex-husband, who moved out four years ago; the hoarding began long before he left, she said.

Sharpley admitted that she can be unrealistic at times.

“You think, ‘It’s only three, that’s plenty of room’; when there’s 10, it’s still plenty of room,” she said. “You don’t think about what the expense will be later for the food, the vet bills, for spaying and neutering, and it gets out of control.”

But, said. Dr. Nydegger, “That certainly does not make it normal,” though he was not familiar with Sharpley’s case specifically.

“It could be that she just didn’t have the heart to turn them away or take them to the shelter where they might be euthanized,” he said. “She may have started off thinking she was protecting them, but it clearly got way out of hand.”

Even with good intentions, he said, the animals and the people suffer.

“Often times, the people are not really all that in touch with the extent to which they’re doing harm, because they’re looking only at their intentions, not the consequences of what’s going on,” said Nydegger.

Sharpley’s account suggests as much.

“This went on for a long, long time,” she said. “Of course, the home became awful, and I just did what I could. Some suggested I just kill them all; some suggested I just open the door and just 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.”

Sharpley said she often sees lost dogs running around; if they have tags, she calls the owners. But these cats seemed “abandoned,” she said.

“I’m a working person; I’m not mentally ill, no offense to mentally ill people,” Sharpley said. She did not disclose where she worked. “I’m called a hoarder, but hoarding people feel they can’t give up an animal…I easily gave up my most favorite kitties, because I knew they were going to somewhere better.”

Nydegger says that there are many misconceptions about hoarding.

“We can see hoarding as a composite of a variety of different psychological conditions, and so what it really means to the person depends at least in part on the underlying psychological factors,” he said. “It’s pathological in the sense that, it’s not in the best interest of the cats or the person. Sometimes, it can be something like [obsessive compulsive disorder], and there is a variety of OCD that involves hoarding. But we also see hoarding in other disorders, including more serious ones like schizophrenia. So, the first thing you want to do is get a snapshot of the person.”

If you find yourself falling into this kind of pattern, Nydegger went on, the best thing to do is seek professional help.

“Many people who are hoarding know it’s out of control; they’re too embarrassed to say anything about it, but they can see,” said Nydegger. “Sometimes, people who don’t understand will either reject you, or turn you into something worse. Ask a professional, even the family doctor. If you see something suspicious in a neighbor, particularly that involves animals, you’ve got to report it, because the animals’ welfare is certainly a part of it. It’s a shame to have to report people, but when their welfare and the welfare of animals is at risk, something’s got to be done about it.”

While Sharpley made no mention of seeking psychological help, she considered seeking the help of veterinarians, but couldn’t afford the bills.

“You go to different people and [they’re] repulsed, or no answer is given,” she said, “and then you stop because, where do you go?”

She eventually found out about Kitten Angels, a volunteer organization in Delmar, which took in a few of the cats.

“We were already placing some of the cats successfully; that’s when the anonymous tip came in, and the sheriffs came in three cars that Saturday night, and they got the tip that I was abusing animals,” said Sharpley. “I’m virtually certain of who it is. But, of course, I can’t say anything because I don’t have proof.”

Sharpley was also in the process of finding help with cleaning her home, she said.

“I had contacted a gentleman who does professional cleaning for people in my situation, and this gentleman had previously worked for the department of health,” she said. “He was in my home April 12, the morning of the department of health coming up. And he had started putting me in touch with a bank so I could get a loan.”

Now, with the involvement of law enforcement, Sharpley feels as though she has lost her chance at redemption.

“Granted, I made a horrific mistake, but I was already in the process of finding a home for each and every animal,” Sharpley said, adding that she fears her “reputation is gone.”

“That’s how life goes,” she said. “Plenty of other people have been here before me. It’s just the way life is.”

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