NAPLES, Fla. - It is a cruel paradox.
Animal hoarders, some of the most prolific perpetrators ofshocking animal neglect, are people who think of themselves asanimal lovers, according to experts in psychology and animaladvocacy.
In 2006, domestic animal services officials in Collier County,Fla., seized 31 cats, two rabbits, two dogs and a bird from thehome of a woman in a classic animal hoarding case.
According to the DAS report, most of the animals were underfedand sick, the floors were littered with animal waste, and theammonia smell from cat urine was so overwhelming the investigatordescribed a burning feeling in her eyes and lungs. Yet officialssaid the owner grossly underestimated the disaster her house hadbecome and the danger to her cats.
The cats, she told an investigator, were her life. Shethreatened suicide if she were parted from them.
In September in Collier County, a judge banned another woman,Tina Ciancaglini, from owning horses again after DAS officialsreported she had consistently taken in more horses than she couldfeed. They found 34 were malnourished.
Researchers of animal hoarding say dealing with the problem isnot as simple as freeing the animals and punishing theperpetrators. Hoarding is a behavioral disorder, not necessarilyintentional criminal neglect.
The research has inspired animal services officials to takemultiple approaches. These include taking the animals away, banningthe person from owning animals again and trying to establish mentalhealth counseling. In extreme cases, prosecutors may pursuecriminal charges.
An animal hoarder is someone who collects a large number ofanimals but gives them substandard care, said Dr. Randy Lockwood, apsychologist who coordinates anti-cruelty initiatives with theAmerican Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Hoarders, he said, fail to recognize or act when the animals'conditions begin to deteriorate.
"The denial reaches so deep that they seem oblivious to thepresence of dead and dying animals," he said. Nationally, numbersare hard to track, Lockwood said, partly because local governmentshandle and report cases differently.
The ASPCA has estimated there could be between 900 and 2,000 newanimal hoarding cases a year in the U.S., with 250,000 animalsmistreated.
Adam Leath, an officer with Lee County (Fla.) Animal Services,suspects that cases are probably under-reported. "Most of the timewith these situations, we get involved when it's out of control,"he said.
Although animal hoarding is nothing new to animal serviceofficials, its study as a psychological condition is relativelyrecent. Researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts beganexamining animal hoarding in a study that began in 1997.
The goal was to study the causes of animal hoarding find ways totreat the problem. Lockwood said the research showed some truth tothe stereotype of the old lady with too many cats. According to a2006 Tufts report, about 75 percent of animal hoarders are women.Nearly half -- 46 percent -- are 60 or older. Most live alone andare single, divorced or widowed.
The two most commonly hoarded animals are cats and small dogs,although rabbits, farm animals and even snakes have beenvictims.
There doesn't seem to be one single cause for animal hoarding.Researchers concluded it may have a variety of origins, includingobsessive-compulsive disorder, grief and anxiety.
There are four kinds of hoarders, researchers say:
-- Overwhelmed caregivers, who generally would be able to carefor animals but may have taken in too many.
-- Rescuer hoarders, who tend to think they are uniquely giftedto save animals from danger but do not see the harm they havecaused.
-- Obsessive compulsive hoarders, who have a desire to collect.However, they're uninterested in or unable to care for what theyhave acquired.
-- Exploiters, who collect animals for selfish gain. Researchersdescribe them as manipulative, with tendencies to skirt thelaw.
Lockwood said hoarders have a nearly 100 percent recidivismrate, regardless of punishment. "At this point, we don't have thetools to cure hoarding," he added.
Criminal charges are not always necessary or helpful, Lockwoodsaid. The key to dealing with hoarders is "relapse prevention,"which means stopping them from keeping animals, monitoring themthrough court orders, and ensuring that they get mental healthcounseling.