Experts: Hoarding requires intervention
School bus drivers and meter readers often phone in complaints.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Maybe there's a cat or dog hoarder in your neighborhood.
The habit of keeping an inordinate number of animals, called hoarding, is recognized by veterinary professionals as a serious problem, said Dr. Donald K. Allen. His veterinary office is at 4501 Market St. in Boardman.
The deplorable condition of a South Side house at 1317 Douglas St. -- where dozens of abandoned cats were discovered Aug. 31 -- didn't surprise those who work with animals. Smells coming from the house, which also contained decaying dead cats and heaps of feces, kept nearby neighbors indoors this summer.
"The houses are usually condemnable; the ammonia smell from urine will gag you," Dr. Allen said. "What these people need is intervention."
Dr. Allen said it is your business if your neighbor's house stinks. He said it's important to get involved -- to call a humane agency, the police, the sheriff's department, zoning, health department or family services.
"Most of these people [who hoard] live alone, almost like hermits," Dr. Allen said. "If they do have family, the family doesn't want to get involved."
The woman who lived at the Douglas Street house died several months ago and neighbors said her son hasn't been seen at the place in two weeks.
Dr. Allen; Diane Less Baird, co-founder of Angels for Animals in Canfield; Pete Johnson, president of the Humane Society of Columbiana; and Dave Nelson, deputy Mahoning County dog warden, agreed that, sadly, the situation on Douglas Street is not an isolated situation.
'Tip of iceberg'
"It's just the tip of the iceberg," Dr. Allen said. "It happens everywhere and intervention is needed."
Less Baird recalled reading a story out of Chicago that concluded hoarders who have their animals removed for humane reasons revert to the same behavior "100 percent of the time." She said her organization deals with hoarders on a fairly regular basis.
She said no normal person lets a house fill up with animals, but hoarders, because of mental illness, believe they're doing the right thing. There's probably 50 situations in Youngstown similar to the house on Douglas Street, she said.
Those who take too many cats or dogs into their homes get overwhelmed with the task of feeding and cleaning up after the pets, Dr. Allen said.
"Some think they're rescuing or saving the animals they pack into their homes," Dr. Allen said. "They block out the dead cat in the corner or on top of the refrigerator."
He has a client -- "a nice lady" -- with 30 cats and several dogs. She takes good care of them now but he wonders at what point she will no longer be able to do the work.
No one type
Johnson said hoarding of animals is everywhere and done by people from all walks of life. He calls it "crazy compassion" -- a mental illness that requires therapy.
He said that, too often, hoarders' neighbors, because they don't want to get involved, don't report the problem to the proper authorities. His organization receives most complaints from school bus drivers and meter readers.
"Hoarders are people perceived as normal who have a hidden secret life. They love animals so much they have 200," Johnson said. "Deep down, they don't want anyone to know."
He recalled an animal neglect case in East Liverpool that involved 53 poodles in one house. The woman's husband couldn't take it anymore and turned her in. All 53 dogs had to be euthanized, he said.
Johnson said he hears complaints from national organizations "not on the front lines" that condemn the killing of animals.
"When there is no one to adopt, what do you do?" Johnson said. "There's always more animals than homes for them."
Like pedophiles who volunteer to work with children, cat and dog hoarders often volunteer to work with animals, Johnson said.
Nelson, who spent many years as humane agent for Animal Charity on South Avenue before joining the dog warden's office, said he's experienced countless situations where well-meaning people had too many cats or dogs, sometimes both. He said it's heartbreaking to see what happens to animals confined to small unsanitary spaces without proper food, water and ventilation.
Too often, the cats and dogs found in squalid conditions have to be euthanized, the experts said.
Less Baird said Mahoning County has enough animal abuse/neglect/hoarding cases to keep three humane agents busy.
Right now, though, the county has no humane agent. Animal Charity designated Jason Osborne as its humane agent but he lacks certification. Until he completes a 20-hour course, which should be next month, he cannot rescue animals in an official capacity, Jennifer Houser, program director, has said.
Permission to rescue
City Prosecutor Jay Macejko gave permission to Animal Charity and Angels for Animals, which is not a humane agency, to rescue the cats at the Douglas Street house this past week as private citizens. The law permits private citizens -- not government employees -- to enter private property to protect a neglected animal, he said. The state confers immunity on such people.
Macejko described the cats' owner on Douglas Street as having been a hoarder. The city, he said, has a moral obligation to rescue animals in distress.
The prosecutor is taking steps to have someone trained as a humane agent to represent the city on an as-needed basis.
Health Commissioner Neil Altman wants to go beyond that and add a humane agent to his staff. He intends to seek funding from city council for the full-time position.
Altman said there are "all too many" places in the city like the house on Douglas Street.
"I talked with officials at shelters and they think it's good idea for the city to have a humane agent," the health commissioner said. "We have to get involved, we have to be progressive."
After The Vindicator reported dead and starving felines at the Douglas Street house, neighbors and others set out food and water. The cats were able to get to the food and water after someone broke a side window.
This past week, city and county officials, Animal Charity, Angels for Animals and the Ohio Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals worked to rectify the situation. The cats deemed healthy and ready for adoption will appear on the ohiospca.org Web site.