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.