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Cat Hoarder or Helper?
By: Mary Anne Miller
Michael’s mom will soon celebrate her ninety-fifth birthday. She lies on the hospital bed; her small emaciated figure dwarfed by sterile sheets and laundered blankets. Mike is sad when he visits his mom. He sees very little to celebrate. It’s his fault (or so his sister daily reminds him) that his mom is in this “rehabilitation center.” Mike remembers the last time he visited his mom. As he walked up the front steps, cats fled in all directions. He side-stepped several trays of cat food before reaching the front door. Then, the stench hit. He reeled back in disgust as smells assaulted his nose; decay, cat pee, cat poop, rotting food. The smell was nauseating. Then his sister opened the front door; she seemed oblivious to the odors.
Mike could barely breathe. He stepped inside the home. The interior was dimly lit. He could barely make out stacks of newspaper tied with cords, piles of books and other debris littered the floor blocking off access to other rooms. When his eyes adjusted, he saw stains had turned the beige carpet into a moldy yellow crust. Piles of dried cat feces scrunched under his feet as he navigated his way past the junk. The smell of cooked cat pee filled his nose.
His mother, once a strict disciplinarian and immaculate homemaker had turned her home into a wild cat refuge. There was a ragged hole cut in the screen over the window of the sink, where cats were now fleeing in panic. Dishes of leftover “meals on wheels” lined the sink, counter and floor. The floral dining room chair cushions were now yellow with the marking of cats claiming her home as theirs. His mom had decided these feral cats and strays were her babies. She had filled the bathtub up with kitty litter; he discovered when he went into the bathroom to catch his breath. A bad idea because the giant pan hadn’t been scooped in years! Mike took a deep breath and ran out of the back door into the yard.
Outside, he leaned over trying to catch his breath. All over the walkway and the yard were scores of plastic dishes holding moldy food. Michael realized his mother was a cat hoarder, a crazy cat lady, with a colony that was out of control. The damage the cats left behind would be costly to fix. He had to get her out of this environment and quickly.
Cat urine and feces are quite caustic. The bacterium in the urine and the stool eats through paint, carpet, and floorboards. The rotting spreads over to the baseboards and the linoleum tiles. Tomcats, smelling other toms’ markings would visit routinely spraying their own signature. The most popular spraying hole turned out to be the old heater in the living room that mom kept on 24 hours a day. His mother sat in an easy chair, oblivious of the smell and the chaos around her. Sharing her lap was a matted, scruffy tortoise-shell cat. He drooled all over mom’s lap while keeping a wary if gummy eye on Michael’s whereabouts. With a deep sigh, Mike picked up his cell phone. He needed to report this situation before it got worse…
This situation plays out repeatedly in homes all over the United States. When raids happen in the homes of cat collectors, many of the hoarders refuse to let the authorities seize any of their animals. Living in unsanitary conditions, unable to understand the implications of breathing foul air on a daily basis, many cat hoarders are reclusive, solitary figures that fill their needs by collecting animals that need them. Even if the animal dies, the hoarder will not let loose of their precious one. Often, dead animals are found stacked up like cords of firewood behind the furniture, or in the freezer. They do not see their animals as unhealthy. To them, their pets are in perfect health.
Lynn Tryba reports in an article in Psychology Today, December 2002, pg. 22, "Trash Menagerie: The Disturbing World of Animal Hoarders",.
"There appear to be more similarities than differences between OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) hoarding and animal hoarding," says Dr. Gary Patronek, who is also an assistant professor of veterinary medicine at Tufts. The interaction between an animal and a person just adds a level of intensity that doesn't exist with a pile of newspapers. Animal hoarders may threaten to kill themselves or others if their animals are removed. They use the animals to fulfill their emotional needs, but at the same time, they're denying the animals' needs, says Patronek."
Cat’s needs are basic survival needs. They require, food, shelter, fresh water daily, routine vet care and of course love. When a hoarder starts to collecti cats, she does so for deep, underlying reasons that we are now only beginning to understand. Believing that these cats need her, she opens her home to the creatures allowing them to breed indiscriminately. If they become injured, their wounds are often left unattended, leaving them to die a slow, unnecessary death. With so much food being left around, more cats arrive. Territorial disputes are waged, marking intensifies and the hoarder is now living in a world gone out of control.
In an HARC study (Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium), a joint venture of the Massachusetts SPCA and schools including Harvard Medical School and Tufts University: seventy-one suspected hoarders were surveyed and observed. The most common animal being hoarded turned out to be cats, followed by dogs, and then birds. All the homes studied were discovered to be filthy with papers, books and debris blocking out most of the living spaces. Sometimes, the human and animal waste was so thick the floors had buckled.
Experts estimate there are at least 700 new cases of hoarding reported every year in the United States. According to Dr. Gary Patronek, the animal hoarder becomes a repeat offender. "The drive to collect these animals is so overpowering there is almost always 100% recidivism."
If you rescue animals, be a responsible rescuer. Know your limits, both financially and emotionally. Be sure that you are working with a vet, or a rescue group who are aware of the challenges of dealing with feral cats. Spay and neuter every pet under your care. Understand there are far too many strays and ferals "out there" that need rescuing. When the quality of care of your felines suffers because you can no longer afford to pay for nutritional food for your cats, or proper vet visits that is when you need to re-examine your life and make changes...
Mike still visits with his mom, only now; she is in a safe, non-toxic environment. He made that difficult but important phone call. His mom is now in the care of a professional nursing staff. After she left, a local rescue group moved in and trapped over one-hundred and fifty cats. Most of the cats had to be destroyed because of their feral nature, or health issues. The home was deemed unfit for human habitation and was bulldozed to the ground. The land was sold and a new home built on the property. As his mom was being taken from the house, she was kicking and screaming, demanding they let her stay with her “babies.” As the ambulance sped away, Michael wept.
There are clear warning signs pointing to hoarders. The amount of animals being collected does not define a hoarder. What determines a hoarder lies in the condition of those animals. Most hoarders are highly intelligent with a knack of being able to gain sympathy. The warning signs to watch out for are:
If you suspect someone might be a hoarder, the responsible move would be to call your local Environmental Health Department. They will help direct your call. Failure to report someone would not only endanger the animals under their care but the health of the hoarder as well. For the cat hoarder, their path of well-intentions soon becomes paved in misery both for their cats and for themselves.