When Rescuers Become Hoarders

 |  Sep 3rd 2010  |   3 Contributions


A Best Friends Animal Sanctuary volunteer feeds some of the more than 700 cats found at FLOCK in Pahrump, Nevada, three years ago. Photo courtesy of Love Meow.

About a quarter of the estimated 6,000 new hoarding cases reported in the US each year began as rescues and shelters, according to the ASPCA.

Dr. Randall Lockwood is ASPCA's senior vice president of forensic sciences and anticruelty projects. "When I first started looking into this 20 years ago, fewer than 5 percent would have fit that description," he said.

The case of Linda Bruno, also known as Lin Marie, is one example. She called her Pennsylvania cat cat rescue "the land of milk and tuna." For years, people sent pets they couldn't care for from hundreds of miles away, unaware of the ugly truth behind the moniker.

Investigators who raided Tiger Ranch Cat Sanctuary in 2008 found killing rooms, mass graves so thick they couldn't take a step without walking on cat bones, and a stunning statistic: Bruno had taken in over 7,000 cats in the previous 14 months, but she'd only found homes for 23.

Experts are still trying to figure out how a person goes from trying to rescue animals to stockpiling them in inhumane conditions without food, water or basic care. No single trigger has been found, but a number of psychological models have been developed to explain it: addiction, attachment disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, focal delusional disorders, and other psychological problems are the most common.

"The root of it is really nothing to do with animals. It's to do with people's heads and how they work," said Gregory Castle, co-founder and chief executive officer of Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab, Utah.

People accused of hoarding usually offer a litany of excuses. They claim they are victims of religious and political persecution or they accuse their accusers of lying or planting evidence.

It's hard to believe the excuses after seeing inches-thick feces, urine stained walls, cages stacked high with starving animals, dead and rotting carcasses, trash, fleas, maggots and diseases, said John Welsh, spokesman for the Riverside, California, Department of Animal Services.

Publicity around hoarding of all kinds has intensified in recent years due to widely publicized cases such as Bruno's and TV shows on the subject. The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium at Tufts University is urging the American Psychiatric Association to include animal hoarding in its next update to the DSM, the diagnostic manual used by mental health professionals.

Bruno was seen as a kind of cat savior. She surrounded herself with volunteers who enabled her and supported her when the 29-acre Tiger Ranch Cat Sanctuary in Tarentum, Pa., was shut down. Some 700 people signed a petition seeking dismissal of the case.

Cats were found in nearly every filthy, stinky building at Tiger Ranch. Many were too sick, starved or weak to get to the little food or water available.

Several agencies had received reports of hoarding at Bruno's ranch, but it took months to document. When the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals entered the facility, they recovered 391 live cats and 106 dead ones. Thousands were believed to be dead and buried.

Bruno was sentenced to two years of house arrest and 27 years probation. She was ordered to pay $200,000 in restitution and $21 a day in electronic monitoring fees.

Fallout from massive hoarding cases has a much broader impact. In the summer of 2007, nearly 800 cats were seized at For the Love of Cats and Kittens (FLOCK) in Pahrump, Nevada.

Best Friends Animal Society mounted a huge rescue effort. Vets and volunteers turned the compound into a temporary triage for the starving, disease-ridden cats who struggled to breathe in the 115-degree desert heat.

Area casinos held adoption events and found homes for 72 cats. But more than a quarter of the 570 cats at the Best Friends' 3,900-acre sanctuary today are from the Nevada rescue. They're still waiting to be adopted -- more than three years later.

For detailed information about the rescue at FLOCK, visit The Great Kitty Rescue.

(Note: Although a quarter of the ASPCA's reported hoarding cases began as rescues and shelters, this reporter urges readers not to assume that all such organizations are hoarding situations. The vast majority of individual-operated rescues and shelters take good care of the animals they take in and do their best to find homes for their charges.)

[Source: Associated Press]

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