Most of us knew very little about hoarding until reality TV shows took us inside homes filled with mountains of trash, piles of clothing, bags and boxes of unused items, and more. Many of these homes are so disordered that there isn't even a path from one room to the next--occupants must literally climb over piles of clutter.
Hoarding "things" is bad enough. The filthy conditions in these homes can threaten the physical health of those who live there, and the seemingly endless stacks and piles, which often block doors and windows, pose a serious safety risk. But as a new PETA undercover investigation reveals, when people compulsively accumulate large numbers of animals, often under the delusion that they're "saving" them, the situation quickly becomes abusive or even deadly. It's up to all of us to prevent this from happening.
Over the last few months, a PETA investigator documented one woman's systematic daily neglect of cats at Sacred Vision Animal Sanctuary (SVAS), a hoarding facility hidden away in an industrial area in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Some 300 cats were kept caged, most for 24 hours a day, in an unventilated storage facility crammed with stacks of crates and carriers. The cats had no room to stretch or walk around and no way to escape the stench of urine and overflowing piles of feces. When I visited SVAS, I nearly vomited from the ammonia rising from the filthy litterboxes.
Many cats had been in this hellhole for years.
PETA's investigator also found that SVAS' owner knowingly deprived suffering cats--including those plagued with conjunctivitis; mouth ulcers; diabetes; torn ligaments; open, infected and bone-deep wounds; and even seizures--of veterinary care. When SVAS' owner was asked if sick and even dying animals could be taken to a veterinarian for help at no cost to her, she refused, instead "playing doctor" with the suffering animals.
On the day that I visited SVAS, I found one cat, named Winky, convulsing and near death in a litterbox. Winky was placed in a carrier in a filthy bathroom and left there for more than an hour while SVAS' owner ran errands. Winky eventually died.
Hoarders exist in virtually every community. They may not always be women accumulating cats--studies have found that nearly 17 percent of hoarders are male and that any species of animal, including dogs, rats, birds, and horses can be a victim of hoarding. But they're causing far more agony and death than they're preventing. According to one expert, purported "shelters" such as SVAS make up one quarter of the 6,000 animal hoarding cases reported annually in the U.S.
Despite their claims of saving animals, hoarders deprive the animals in their charge of adequate food, water, shelter, veterinary care, sanitary living conditions, and proper socialization. This neglect often causes malnourishment and starvation, dehydration, parasitic infestation, communicable illnesses such as respiratory infections and parvo, antisocial behavior, and death. Says Dr. Gary Patronek of Tufts University, hoarders "claim to have a special connection with animals, yet they are totally indifferent to their suffering."
Hoarding is often symptomatic of mental illness, and it's vital that officials seek psychiatric intervention and counseling for hoarders and ban them from owning or harboring animals. Otherwise, they will likely start collecting animals again. Without intervention, the relapse rate for hoarders is near 100 percent.
After PETA presented our findings to local officials in the Myrtle Beach case, the cats at SVAS were seized and placed in a temporary shelter set up by the county. To be sure, these cases require law-enforcement, judicial, veterinary, and mental-health professionals' intervention. But we all must do our part when we suspect someone of hoarding animals. The animals in jeopardy in these cases depend on you and me to pick up the phone, just as one brave individual did after witnessing the atrocities at SVAS.
And we must ensure that fewer animals end up in such sad situations in the first place. Too many of us still don't spay and neuter our animals, and their unwanted descendants are being warehoused and are suffering and dying in hoarding facilities all over the country.
The best way to prevent hoarding is by sterilizing animals. The fewer animals we let roam and breed, the fewer animal addicts and deaths we'll read about in tomorrow's paper.
Dan Paden is a senior research associate for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA); 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; http://www.PETA.org.