Most of us have heard of people who hoard material objects, piling up so much junk that they can barely navigate their own houses. Less familiar are animal hoarders, who accumulate pets they cannot care for. "We are dealing with something that has generally been perceived as a harmless eccentricity," says Randall Lockwood, PhD, senior vice president for anticruelty field services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "The notion of the crazy cat lady"—unconventional but loving—"is something that you find a lot in popular culture."
The reality is less benign. An estimated 250,000 animals are victims of hoarding in the United States in any given year—making this one of the most far-reaching problems for agencies defending their welfare. Unlike someone who intentionally abuses an individual dog or cat, a hoarder might harm dozens or even hundreds. "In terms of the toll it takes," Lockwood says, "hoarders are a much more serious source of animal suffering."
Recently scientists have begun to investigate the psychology of the phenomenon—you can even find the work of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium on the Tufts University Web site. The number of animal hoarding cases, researchers estimate, falls somewhere between 3,000 and 7,000 annually. The perpetrators tend to be older and unmarried, and women outnumber men by about three to one. Often they have elaborate justifications for keeping sick and unkempt animals, emphasizing, for example, that they've rescued them from euthanasia, or denying the poor conditions they're stuck in. Hoarders, it turns out, often live in similar squalor themselves.
In untangling the minds of animal hoarders, experts say it's clear that they're not just latter-day Saint Francises who've gotten overwhelmed. The behavior has been linked to several mental health conditions, including attachment and personality disorders. "In many of these cases, it goes back to childhood trauma," says one of the field's leading researchers, Gary Patronek, PhD, vice president for animal welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. Frequently, hoarders had a lack of, or inconsistent, parenting, he says, or sometimes suffered emotional or physical abuse. Pets might have provided their only steady companionship. As adults, these people develop a delusional sense that more animals mean greater security. "The animals represent their identity. It's where their sense of self comes from," Patronek says. This helps explain why, without intervention, recidivism approaches 100 percent.
Barbara Woodley—the daughter of sharecroppers, who was a musician in her younger days—adored her pups, according to her family (Woodley died in 2008). "Those dogs were her world," says her son, Ricky Poole, a captain in the local fire department. "She'd see one outside in the cold and she'd pick it up. Her intentions were to breed them and sell them. But the longer she kept them, the more attached she got and couldn't let go." Woodley looked after the animals attentively at first, hand-vaccinating them and sitting with them as they gave birth. She used to tell her older sister, Juanita Hall, that the dogs were her children. "They don't talk back to me," she'd say. "They just love me for what I am." But after a heart attack in the 1990s, Woodley's health declined, and so did her ability to keep her charges in any kind of decent shape. "She just couldn't take care of them like she used to," Poole says.
Whatever the truth, there were masses of dogs in wretched conditions, and no easy fix. In any hoarding situation, beyond the mental health issues involved, law enforcement and animal rescue organizations are faced with a daunting challenge: What to do with the huge number of confiscated animals? Veterinary care alone can cost tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and shelters don't have room for the normal stray population, much less wholesale influxes of new animals.
In the Woodley case, ALDF saw a possible solution in a unique North Carolina law that allows third parties to seek custody of abused animals through a civil trial. But it had rarely been used, and no one knew how it would stand up in court. In 2004 the organization's attorneys decided it was time to find out.