The Mysteries of Animal Hoarding

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Maybe you've heard stories about a "crazy cat lady" that lives down the street: the stereotypical older, single woman with fifty cats; so many that they're mangy starving, and yet she considers herself the Mother Theresa of the animal kingdom. While there are plenty of examples that follow that model, hoarding is by no means limited to cats, nor old ladies, for that matter. (Here's a story about a Texas man who hoarded cats he got via "free kitten" ads in the newspaper -- and when that didn't net enough animals, he resorted to outright theft.) There have also been reports, according to the BBC, of dog hoarding, a woman who kept pigs in her Los Angeles home, and "a Connecticut woman who hoarded beavers she had shipped from Montana." I blogged last year about a Russian woman with more than 120 cats in her home -- check out the amazing video.

We know these cases exist -- what psychologists don't understand, however, is where the compulsion to hoard animals comes from. From the San Francisco Chronicle:

Although cases pop up regularly throughout the country, hoarding remains little understood. Researchers have identified some psychiatric disorders that may play a part, but they do not apply to every case. Nor is it easy to tell someone who merely loves animals -- a lot of animals -- from a hoarder.

Small, quiet and independent, cats may fit the needs of hoarders better than other animals. Most people identified as hoarders go to great lengths to keep their menageries hidden from the outside world. Some are merely embarrassed. Others are convinced that police or animal control officers are out to kill their animals. That fear often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many animals found in hoarders' homes are so sick or wild that they must be destroyed.

Some hoarders show signs of dementia. In others, hoarding seems linked to obsessive compulsive disorder, in which people find themselves endlessly repeating patterns such as collecting the same inanimate objects, over and over. Most of those who are considered hoarders, however, share two key traits: extreme difficulty letting go of their animals and an inability to recognize the creatures' declining health. Those traits even apply to hoarders who are extremely bright, articulate people, researchers say.

Have any of you known a hoarder?

July 23, 2009 - 7:35am
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