Despite the popularity of television shows like "Hoarders" and "Confessions: Animal Hoarding," hoarding -- where people keep abnormally large numbers of animals for whom they do not provide adequate basic care -- remains an animal cruelty epidemic, affecting communities across the country.
A recent case that involved more than 100 animals (at least) and tied up local courts for years is Kern County's Bemis/Trapani case. Cynthia Bemis and Cynthia Trapani are hoarders who were arrested for keeping large numbers of cats and dogs in deplorable conditions; ultimately, both were given jail time for animal cruelty. They appealed their conviction, and last month, California's 5th District Court of Appeal published its opinion, rejecting the defendants' arguments and effectively ending this years-long case.
Hoarding affects an estimated 250,000 animals per year in communities nationwide. Hoarders' animal victims typically suffer horribly as a result of this crime, and, unlike most other forms of companion animal cruelty, their misery can go on for years. The animals generally show signs of abuse such as emaciation, open sores, untreated cancers, parasites, rotting teeth and eye disease; however, they do not get taken out of their filthy, crowded and chaotic environments to receive veterinary care.
We are not yet sure what motivates hoarders. We do know that 72 percent of hoarders are women, and that the most common animal victims are cats, followed by dogs. Most hoarders believe that they are saving animals that would otherwise be killed and see themselves as being persecuted by cold-hearted city officials or busybodies; others are also breeders motivated by profit rather than genuine concern for their animals. A key symptom of this criminal pathology is that hoarders are not able to see the suffering that they cause.
In addition to the horrific animal cruelty involved, hoarding creates such highly unsanitary and even dangerous conditions that the properties of hoarders, contaminated with fecal matter and urine, are often condemned. Prior to her arrest, Bemis had come under scrutiny when a mobile-home fire on her property killed almost 50 dogs and 10 cats, most of which were trapped inside the unit. What's more, a single hoarding case involving dozens, if not hundreds, of animals can bankrupt a local humane society and the nuisance and cost to local authorities is a major concern.
The good news is, it is not impossible to nab a hoarder. The Animal Legal Defense Fund won an unprecedented court victory in Sanford, N.C., where a unique state law allows any person or organization to sue an animal abuser. In April 2005, a trial judge granted an injunction allowing ALDF and county authorities to remove more than 300 diseased, neglected and abused dogs from the home of Sanford's Barbara and Robert Woodley. ALDF was granted custody of the animals, and the hoarders were also found guilty of animal cruelty. The dogs were all placed with loving foster families who have now adopted them.
Hoarding is very difficult to prevent, but it can be stopped. Local officials need to recognize the basic signs of hoarding. In the short term, neglected and abused animals should be removed from a hoarder's property; over the long term, animal protection laws need to be modified in order to give law enforcement officials the tools they need to charge and convict hoarders. The recidivism rate for hoarders is almost 100 percent for repeat offenders; thus, the only realistic solution for stopping their behavior is to prevent them from owning animals. Hoarding is in fact a mental illness, but it is our job as a society to remember that the real victims in these cases have no voice but the one we provide for them.
Joyce Tischler is a California attorney and the founding director of the Animal Legal Defense Fund (www.aldf.org), a nonprofit agency that works to protect the lives and advance the interests of animals through the legal system.