Animal hoarding definitely is one of those issues that falls into the “you know it when you see it” category, and Kelli Ferris has seen too much of it.
An assistant clinical professor at NC State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), Dr. Ferris is often the on-call authority officials contact when investigating hoarding incidents or the expert witness prosecutors ask to testify in court proceedings.
She has participated in countless cases since 2000 when she initiated the CVM Community-Campus Partnership Program, an animal welfare program that works with animal control and sheltering organizations and rescue groups. The number of animals involved in the various cases exceeds 10,000—and counting.
“We did not have many people trained in recognizing and investigating hoarding, understanding the implications of the problem, and appreciating the long-term care issues when we started,” says Dr. Ferris. “In fact, North Carolina had almost no one trained in dealing with animal hoarding.”
The CVM faculty member began working at the county level to educate investigators, animal control officers, and shelter workers as well as veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Some 50 to 75 individuals now train each year. In addition to information on animal cruelty and hoarding, participants—who may earn education credits—learn about proper sheltering and medical care. Hoarding has been emphasized recently as there are more of these cases than dog fighting or individual animal abuse.
According to Dr. Ferris, a particular challenge in North Carolina involves people who collect animals under the guise of saving them.
“These operations present themselves as humane, no-kill shelters,” says Dr.
Ferris. “These hoarders—and they are hoarders—may gain public support since no one wants to euthanize animals. The problem is these facilities do not have the resources, knowledge, or ability to care for the animals. They call themselves ‘no kill’ shelters but they are actually ‘slow kill’ shelters.”
The CVM faculty member references an infamous case in Henderson County that involved more than one thousand animals being warehoused on the property. Numerous national humane organizations were called in to properly care for the animals once authorities were finally able to inspect and shut down the operation.
“The reason it came to this point is the operator had public opinion on her side,” says Dr. Ferris. “She was even soliciting donations through a web site. The conditions were so bad that some dogs kept in one small exercise pen developed stereotypical circling behavior and over wore a path in the concrete floor. That’s pretty amazing.”
The animal cruelty expert is quick to point out that there are many reputable shelters who subscribe to the “no kill” philosophy. These responsible operators, Dr. Ferris says, only take in the number of animals they can properly care for in terms of adequate nutrition, appropriate housing environment, social enrichment, and veterinary care.
Neighbors in suburban or urban locales can also be hoarders as the problem cuts across all social boundaries including sex, age, income, and education.
One case came to the attention of authorities thanks to a smoke detector and a concerned neighbor. Hearing the unanswered alarm and knowing the homeowner was at work, the neighbor called the fire department. Firefighters were greeted not by smoke but by smell; over a period of time urine from some 50 cats on the second floor seeped through the floor boards and set off the alarm on the first floor ceiling.
Dr. Ferris’ initial encounter with hoarding came in 1982 when she was a member of the American Cocker Spaniel Club in Washington State. A successful Cocker Spaniel breeder who routinely showed her beautiful dogs at shows was killed in a car accident. When concerned club members came to the breeder’s home, they found some 80 dogs that were retired from competition locked in a hay barn without running water. The animals were in terrible consideration with coats matted to the skin and infested with fleas.
“Anyone may be a hoarder. There have even been cases of veterinarians and veterinary technicians who have been hoarders,” says Dr. Ferris, who advises those who suspect a hoarding incident to contact the local authorities.
Once a case does reach court, legal considerations may hinder a successful prosecution. In North Carolina, for example, animal cruelty charges must be brought before a judge or jury as separate, individual counts. Since it’s not possible to hear numerous counts in a single case, a few representative examples of abuse usually are considered. This makes it difficult for a prosecutor to detail the scope and impact of abuse cases involving hundreds of animals.
Another legal consideration is the understanding that the state cannot “overburden” a person. “The law simply requires a person to provide animals with basic sustenance,” says Dr. Ferris. “I feel we need to broaden the definition of ‘subsistence’ to mean more than just food and water to keep the animal alive. Subsistence should include air quality, water quality, appropriate housing for the species, and appropriate veterinary attention.”
But Dr. Ferris does see reason to be optimistic. She says that there seems to be increased public awareness of hoarding thanks in part to reality television programs that can provide some insight into what can be a complex personal problem. Awareness may lead to appropriate intervention and the opportunity for improved animal welfare.
For more information:
A good source of information on hoarding is available at The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.