Scott Kirkwood, HSUS
Shedding Some Light on Animal Hoarders
A Series of Studies Aims to Profile People Who Collect Animals
If your shelter has ever handled a collector case or cared for animals seized during an investigation, you already know how upsetting and complicated the task can be. But few people outside the animal care and control field have ever heard of the term “animal collector.” And even fewer people understand the reasons behind the behavior and its long-term effects on the individuals, the animals, and public health.
To change that, a group of researchers is taking a closer look at the problems posed by animal collectors–more properly called “animal hoarders”using a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach. By drawing on psychological and sociological studies, scientists are exploring the causes that lead people to this troubling, if not bizarre, behavior.
One of the first published articles to establish the serious nature of this phenomenon appeared in the January/February 1999 issue of Public Health Reports. In “Hoarding of Animals: An Under-Recognized Public Health Problem in a Difficult to Study Population,” Gary Patronek, VMD, PhD, profiles the typical animal hoarder.
As part of the study, Patronek contacted a number of animal care and control agencies and asked investigators to complete standardized case reports. Ten agencies responded to Patronek’s request, providing 54 completed case forms. The results reveal a profile familiar to the veteran cruelty investigator:
- Three-quarters of the 54 hoarders were female.
- Nearly half of all hoarders were 60 years or older; 37% were between 40 and 59 years of age.
- Almost three-quarters of the hoarders were single, divorced, or widowed; just over half lived alone.
- Employment information was not always given, but available data revealed many hoarders were retired, unemployed, or receiving disability payments.
- Cats were involved in 65% of cases, dogs in 60%, farm animals in 11% and birds in 11%. An average of 39 animals were involved in each case, but four cases involved more than 100 animals.
- In 80% of the cases, some animals were found dead or in severe condition.
- The reasons hoarders offered for their behavior included a love of animals; a view of the animals as surrogate children; feelings that no one else would care for the animals; and a fear that the animals would be euthanized if taken to a shelter.
- In 38 of the 49 cases where residences were inspected, the premises were described as heavily cluttered and unsanitary.
- Responses indicate that cases were often protracted and difficult to resolve; even after removal of the animals, resumption of hoarding was common.
- Outside government agencies were involved or consulted in 36 of the 54 cases (67%), but respondents expressed frustration at the inability or unwillingness of mental health, social service, and public health agencies to participate.
This last finding reflects the problem researchers are trying to solve: Animal-hoarding cases involve numerous agencies, yet often no single agency is willing or able to assume complete authority for the investigation. And because animal care and control agencies must address the animal care aspect of the problem, they are often left to struggle alone to resolve the entire case, though they may lack the authority and resources to do so. Unlike the hoarding of inanimate objects, animal hoarding has not been widely recognized as a symptom of any specific mental disorder, so it’s often considered a lifestyle choice rather than a public health or mental health issue.
Patronek and fellow researchers believe that by drawing parallels between those who hoard animals and those who hoard inanimate objects, new research might lead mental health professionals and government agencies to grasp the importance of resolving these cases. Ongoing studies by Randy Frost, PhD, and Arnold Arluke, PhD, suggest hoarders of all kinds may share certain characteristics, including: emotional attachments to whatever they are hoarding; difficulty making decisions; erroneous beliefs about the nature of that which they hoard; and the avoidance of common behaviors that might expose the hoarder, such as inviting guests into the home. As these studies continue, researchers hope to achieve a deeper understanding of animal hoarders to alleviate the impact on shelters, animals, and the general public.
Gary Patronek is continuing to collect case reports while Arnold Arluke interviews animal hoarders to determine the reasons for their behaviors, but if the project is to be successful researchers will need the input of shelters that have been involved in such cases. If your agency is interested in providing information to move the investigation forward, contact Patronek at 508-839-5302 ext. 84708; firstname.lastname@example.org