Too many animals can signal troubleIt started with a few animals at her rural Duluth home. Then Carol said she began having money problems, became depressed, and wasn’t able to care for herself, let alone her animals. Then she acquired even more animals.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
It started with a few animals at her rural Duluth home. Then Carol said she began having money problems, became depressed, and wasn’t able to care for herself, let alone her animals. Then she acquired even more animals.
For fear of falling back into the depression, she won’t say how many animals she had or the condition they were found in, only that “they weren’t getting the care they needed and deserved.”
She felt too embarrassed to get help. “I felt overwhelmed and alone,” she said.
Carol is not the woman’s real name. Her identity is being withheld because she fears for her safety from people angry about her hoarding.
When Duluth Animal Control Officer Carrie Lane came to Carol’s property five years ago, she said, she found dozens of animals — many cats, some dogs and some goats — too many for one person to care for. Some died and had been left to rot.
The animals probably died of natural causes, Lane said, but it was a symptom of Carol’s depression that they weren’t moved or taken to a veterinarian before they died. “She told me she left them there as a daily reminder of what a bad person she was,” Lane said.
Carol is one of dozens of animal hoarders Lane has worked with since she started the job in the early 1990s.
Unlike the case of Todd Stoehr, who faces up to 69 counts of animal cruelty charges after more than 100 cats were seized March 18 from his Two Harbors and rural Knife River properties, Lane has never sought to press charges against hoarders.
She prefers to work with hoarders to get the animals to a safe place and prevent them from doing it again.
“If I felt there was intention, I would charge,” said Lane, who is a member of the Duluth Police Department. “I wouldn’t hesitate. It’s the difference between neglect and abuse. It’s that intention piece.”
Lane said she’s discovered numerous hoarding situations in Duluth: people keeping dozens of cats and dogs and other animals in filth and unbearable stench. Once she found a house where cats were tied up and separated by gender so they wouldn’t mate. Another time she found a house where a woman kept mummified cats in shoeboxes.
Still, having worked with hoarders for so many years, Lane said she’s developed empathy for them. “It’s not logical, but it’s understandable,” she said. “It’s not forgivable, but it can be worked with if they ask for help.”
Hoarders are severely punished by their communities. Carol, for example, said she has received death threats from her neighbors. She also worries about losing her job. “People think the person is no longer a human,” Lane said. “It’s like they forfeited their human rights in that respect.”
And many hoarders punish themselves during and after the hoarding is discovered, Lane said. Carol’s explanation of leaving the dead animals as self-punishment explained why she couldn’t ask for help, Lane said. “How can you ask for help when you’re that bad a person in your mind?” she said. “She was really, deeply ashamed.”
Hoarders often start with good intentions: They’re animal lovers who want to save the animals they take in. But researchers say hoarders often have psychological problems and rescuing animals gives way to a goal of using the animals to feel better about themselves.
“It’s about them, their need to feel secure and their crazy way of doing it,” said Dr. Mary Lou Randour, a psychologist and professional outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States. “What they’re really trying to do is control the animals, which becomes an object to them. … Some of the creatures that they profess to love are suffering and dying, but that doesn’t penetrate them because of their greater need.”
The psychological problem also explains how they can stand the filth and odor that come from hoarding, Randour said, comparing the disorder to the anorexia. “Someone can be near death, but [anorexics] can look in the mirror and believe they’re fat,” she said. “They don’t recognize reality.”
But hoarders also at least subconsciously recognize that what they’re doing is wrong. They’ll shut their curtains and drapes, and close the windows to keep the smell from getting outside, Lane said. They’ll no longer let people inside their home even as it deteriorates and the number of animals increases, either through breeding or collecting.
Dr. Gary Patronek, who founded the Tufts University Hoarding Animals Research Consortium and has studied the disorder since the 1990s, said for a hoarder to be discovered would “cause their whole world view to come crashing down.”
“They cope with stress by clutching to animals even tighter,” he said. “They need to believe that their animals are there for them. Any threat to remove their animals is a very deep threat.”
A strong distrust of people also makes working with hoarders difficult, Patronek said. But if intervention isn’t given, the chances of falling back into hoarding “are almost 100 percent.”
The best way of preventing animal hoarding, argues Jim Filby Williams, executive director of the Duluth Animal Allies Humane Society, is to catch it early. “We have law enforcement, social service agencies and animal shelters acting on their own to address hoarding cases, and they cannot succeed,” he said. “Each is left to improvise those connections on a last-minute basis.”
Lane said she often talks with Carol to ensure she’s not going back into hoarding. “For a lot of people that hoard, if you don’t keep an open door ongoing, they can start hoarding again,” Lane said. “I would say she’ll be fine as long as she keeps communicating.”
Talking about it
There was a panel discussion about animal hoarding Wednesday at the Animal Allies Humane Society in Duluth. It has also been the home for cats saved from Todd Stoehr’s Two Harbors and rural Knife River properties after raids last month.
The lead humane investigator for northern Minnesota and local experts talked about what animal hoarding means, why people hoard animals, and what we can do as a community to identify and address hoarding situations before there is another crisis.
Animal Allies held 35 cats from the Stoehr hoarding case. Of those 35 cats, 26 were put in adoptive homes with all fees waived. The remaining nine cats are still waiting for homes.
Animal Allies permanently waived the $90 adoption fee. “These beautiful cats deserve a second chance,” Director Jim Filby Williams said. “We are determined to find a loving home for each and every one of them.”
The cats were sent to Duluth because of the new facility there. The Lake County Humane Society in Two Harbors didn’t have the room or quarantine facilities, Filby Williams said.
Four of the rescued cats need extensive socialization and Animal Allies is putting out a call for rural residents, outside city limits, who want to adopt a sterilized barn cat and agree to provide shelter from the elements.
All cats have been spayed and neutered, vaccinated, microchipped, and tested and treated for illness. Animal Allies is asking adopters and the community to help defray the cost of caring for the cats by considering a donation. Reach the shelter at 722-1269. It is located at 4006 Airport Road in Duluth.
Todd Stoehr of Two Harbors faces animal cruelty charges based on the cats found on his rural Knife River property. According to the Two Har-bors Police Department, Stoehr will likely face only misdemeanor charges for breaking the city ordinance of three licensed cats per household. City officials still will not comment on the case or provide basic information on its ordinance enforcement. To ask why, call city hall at 834-5631.