The Dangers of Hoarding

A man trapped for two days beneath a fallen stack of newspapers in New York City; a Virginia woman’s home overrun with 500 cats; a Florida man discovered with dozens of vipers in his house — these are just three recent cases that have drawn national attention to the dangers of hoarding.

Stories of people with hundreds of animals, thousands of newspapers or mountains of clothes are increasing as awareness of hoarding spreads, and some states and counties have been forced to recognize the problem and try to deal with it.

Degrees of hoarding range from clutter to squalor and can pose fire and health risks, said Randy O. Frost, a professor of psychology at Smith College who first defined the disorder in 1991.

A need to acquire things, inability to throw things away and lack of organization skills are three elements of inanimate-object hoarding. But a smaller and more frequently reported sector of hoarding deals with the accumulation of large numbers of animals.

Fairfax County, Va., formed a special task force to deal with cases of hoarding in 1998.

The task force condemned the house of a woman recently found living with hundreds of cats. A well-kept lawn and suburban facade on a two-story home near Mount Vernon masked an inside full of feces, ravaged furniture and plastic containers serving as coffins for 222 dead animals.

Media coverage of such stories brings attention to the problem, and communities are reacting, said Kate Pullen, director of animal-sheltering issues for the Humane Society of the United States. In New York, Vermont and Wisconsin, there are task forces like the one in Fairfax County, she said.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of interest from communities to do a better job, to address the humans as well as the animals,” Pullen said.

Dr. Gary Patronek, founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium and an epidemiologist at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine, estimates there are 2,000 to 3,000 animal-hoarding cases annually involving up to 250,000 animals.

The number of cases increased after World War II, when large numbers of Americans began keeping pets, Patronek said. And rises in the number of dysfunctional families and childhoods have also contributed to hoarding, he said.

“Hugging the family dog when you’re scared as a kid, that worked; but keeping 500 dogs or cats as an adult doesn’t work,” Patronek said. “Somehow those attachments become warped.”

Patronek and Frost both found that hoarding is not limited to one socioeconomic class or gender.

“We’ve had people in our study who have been quite wealthy and who have hoarded very expensive objects, all the way to people who scavenge on the street for free things. It runs the gamut,” Frost said.

Most hoarders see the creative value of objects, from old bottle caps to newspapers, Frost said. And sometimes they associate memories or beliefs with things they own.

“It ranges from people who just have a lot of stuff and can’t move around in it and people who live in squalor,” Frost said. “I’ve seen houses so full that the only way to get through them is to swim through material.”

Frost said an increase in materialism may contribute to rises in hoarding. But John Yetman, chairman of Fairfax County’s task force, said he sees increases only in the number of people reporting the condition as awareness spreads.

Fairfax County has yet to calculate the costs associated with cleaning and treating hoarding cases, but Yetman said the largest expenditure is manpower. Special hazardous-materials teams are frequently called in to clean out debris.

“The focus that we have for Fairfax County is restoration of the home,” Yetman said. “It’s only in those cases where the individuals are unable or unwilling to act that we end up in court.”

The Humane Society has created a program to teach local governments how to remove animals.

The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium created a crisis intervention program to deal with psychological effects for people whose animals are removed. Many hoarders see themselves as martyrs, sacrificing their comfort for animals they love.

“These are people who are placing their whole sense of identity, of self-esteem, on being saviors,” said Jane Nathanson, a social worker and member of the consortium.