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I Am Cat Lady, Hear Me Meow

A cat's best friend or worst enemy? How a feline fixation can go too far

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What they have to hide

Until fairly recently, cat hoarding has been looked upon as little more than a harmless eccentricity. Crazy behavior, sure, but not criminal. People and the legal system viewed cat collectors, as they were then called, as pitiful people worthy of scorn, perhaps, but not severe punishment. The bible of mental disorders, the DSM-IV, still doesn't recognize hoarding as a specific illness, but authorities suspect the behavior is strongly linked to emotional dysfunction.

Dr. Gary Patronek, clinical assistant professor at Tufts University's Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium in 1997 to investigate the phenomenon. This loose-knit group of scholars and advocates now sets the following criteria as characteristic of animal hoarding: more than the typical number of companion animals; inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness and death; and denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household and human occupants of the dwelling.

Authorities quickly emphasize that it's not the number of animals one owns that's the defining factor of hoarding. "I've never judged a person by the number of animals that they keep," says Barbara Snow, executive director of the Humane Society of Charlotte. "It's the behavior that's attached to it." So if you have 15 well-cared-for cats, you're not a hoarder. But if neighbors can smell the cat urine from three houses away, weeelll, you probably have a problem.

The stereotype of the animal hoarder -- a single, older woman of modest means -- is an apt, if not always applicable, generalization. Cats are more commonly hoarded than dogs, but reports have documented the hoarding of a variety of animals: Dogs, rabbits, ferrets, birds, guinea pigs, farm animals, and exotic or dangerous wildlife. The consortium estimates that more than 250,000 animals are victims of hoarding each year.

Corkwell, in her six years as an animal control officer, has noticed that hoarding can begin with a well-intentioned person taking in a couple of strays from the neighborhood. "They just never get them fixed and before you know it, (you have) 30 and 40 inbred, feral cats that you can't handle. These cat hoarders that we deal with, they cannot catch their own cats; their cats will not come up to them. There's no affection; there's no care; there's no enjoyment in their companionship at all."

Patronek says that hoarders really don't know what they're doing is wrong. "This is genuine denial," he says, speaking on his cell phone while walking his dog. "This isn't people who are trying to get out of something bad. They can't see what they've done."

Hoarders often profess great love for their animals but are somehow oblivious to the suffering and neglect to which they subject their pets. "Obviously, loving them or thinking you love them is not enough," Snow says. "It's meeting their physical needs and their behavioral needs."

Authorities say the inside of an animal hoarder's home can make you cry: scrawny, feral cats with bites, scratches and pus-filled eyes. Contagious diseases. Dead cats. Feces. Smells that require special equipment to brave. Ammonia built up to dangerous levels. Homes that are never inhabitable again. Yards that reek of cat piss.

One hoarder whose cats were being seized told Snow she was going to hell and "God wanted him to have all these animals," says Snow, who has worked with animal welfare agencies in several states. One strange case involved a postal worker in Florida who lived in his car because his house was overflowing with at least 100 dogs and cats. Authorities seized the animals, but he started collecting again. He ultimately lost his job at the post office, Snow says. "They didn't want to keep him because they were getting complaints that he was taking (patrons') animals."

"FERAL CAROL" BUTLER: She's fed a colony of 40-something cats for several years, forgoing vacations and the corporate world in the process. These formerly wild cats are now her spayed and neutered friends, but they'll run from strangers. - FERAL CAROL ENTERPRISES
  • Feral Carol Enterprises
  • "FERAL CAROL" BUTLER: She's fed a colony of 40-something cats for several years, forgoing vacations and the corporate world in the process. These formerly wild cats are now her spayed and neutered friends, but they'll run from strangers.

Even after their homes are raided, hoarders almost always revert to their old habits, Patronek says. "You have to think of any other addictive or compulsive behavior. Do any of those powerful drivers of human behavior disappear just because they've been issued a citation? The answer is no."

Some hoarders claim, falsely, to be looking for homes for their animals, says Mark Balestra, bureau manager for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Animal Control. In one case he mentions, a rescue group offered to help a hoarder find homes. At first the woman was receptive. Then she backed out. "They always want to say, 'I'm trying to find them homes. They're not my personal pets, I'm trying to find them homes.' But yet, it goes on and on and on."

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