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Pathological collectors of creatures believe they are rescuers

Animal hoarders are typically single females who live alone

Thursday, March 23, 2000

By Sally Kalson, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

There's a term for amassing so many pets that one's home becomes overrun, imperiling the life and health of creatures and humans alike.

Humane agents refer to it as animal hoarding, or the pathological collecting of animals to the point that many are sick, starving, dead or at risk for those outcomes. In recent months, the region has seen a rash of such cases.

The latest, and by far the worst, was Tuesday's discovery of 200 neglected and dead animals at a Westmoreland County farm owned by a woman in her 40s who lived alone. Two weeks earlier, humane agents found 48 dogs and cats at a home in Tarentum. And in December, 85 to 100 cats were removed from squalid conditions at a home in Richland.

"In the past we may have had one case of this a year," said David Swisher, director of Animal Friends, a no-kill shelter in the Strip District. "In the last four months we've had three cases. I think it's because the public is becoming more aware of the situation and reporting it more often to the proper authorities."

Dorothy Zewe, administrative assistant at the Western Pennsylvania Humane Society, said hoarders often see themselves as helping animals rather than hurting them.

"It's usually the older woman, living by herself, who thinks she's saving lives by taking all these animals in. Then they can't afford to feed or care for them properly. They don't see it as neglect or abuse."

Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, studies animal hoarding and, in a recent article, described it as "an under-recognized public health problem in a difficult-to-study population."

Patronek, a veterinarian, was unavailable yesterday, but some of his findings were published in the January 1999 issue of Public Health Reports. The article summarized data from 54 case reports from 10 animal control agencies and humane societies across the nation. His study found:

76 percent of hoarders were female.

46 percent were 60 years of age or older.

About half lived alone.

The animals were most frequently cats, dogs, farm animals and birds.

The median number of animals per case was 39, but four cases involved more than 100 in a single household.

In 80 percent of the cases, animals were found dead or in poor condition.

Extrapolating from his data, the author estimated that 700 to 2,000 such cases occur in the United States annually.

The largest number of cases came to the attention of investigators via neighbors (31), social service agencies (12) and police (8).

Some cases were protracted and difficult to resolve, Patronek wrote, and even after animals were removed, it was common for hoarding to begin again. Sometimes, hoarders vanished and resurfaced later in neighboring areas. In one case, a woman bought a new home every few years after each residence became uninhabitable.

There is no diagnostic label for people who hoard animals, he noted. However, at least a quarter of those in his study were subsequently institutionalized, placed in guardianship or in a supervised living situation.

"Public health authorities should recognize that animal hoarding may be a sentinel for mental health problems or dementia, which merit serious assessment and prompt intervention," Patronek concluded.

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