Hoarding: Too Many Pets and Not Enough Solutions

Times Union

Neighbors complained to police for more than a dozen years about the condition of the animals living on Ann Arnold’s property. They said the horses were underfed and their pasture unsafe.

An animal investigator came repeatedly to check on the horses. Once in the mid-1990s, horses and dogs were seized from Arnold but later returned. But in September, Arnold surrendered 15 horses to the Upstate New York chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals following an investigation that led to State Police charging Arnold with 19 counts of animal cruelty; she pleaded not guilty and she’ll be in court again in December. Horses were removed from pastures where they had been standing knee-deep in mud, manure and urine. Many were starving, and their bodies were riddled with skin disease caused by their living conditions.

“I’ve been taking care of horses for half a century,” Arnold said. “I did fine on my own until this summer, when the rain came.”

In addition to Arnold’s, other recent local cases of animal hoarding include a house in Rotterdam overrun by 47 cats; and a nonprofit rescue organization in Washington County where SPCA staff removed more than 50 dogs and 12 cats. But it is hard to track hoarding cases in New York because “hoarding” isn’t included in the animal cruelty law. More challenging is solving a problem in which offenders often deny they need help and laws do little to curb the behavior.

Arnold said her herd — what remains of quarter horses she used to show and sell — was healthy up until the end of June, when she started looking for new homes for some of her horses.

Arnold is now under court order to allow the SPCA to come onto her property to check on the horses she refused to surrender.

SPCA officers are similar to police officers, but with a narrow mission. They are allowed by law to carry a gun and a badge, but they must have a warrant to enter someone’s property without permission and a court order to seize animals. An anonymous complaint rarely persuades a judge to grant a search warrant, said Cathy Cloutier, director of the Upstate SPCA.

Experts in the field said Arnold shows the classic signs of an animal hoarder — someone who begins with good intentions and adequate resources but then becomes overwhelmed and can no longer provide good care for their animals.

Arnold said it was a combination of crises — the weather and financial strain caused when a medical condition made her unable to work — that led to her horses’ sorry state. Rather than charge her with a crime, Arnold said the SPCA and her neighbors should have helped her.

Many well-meaning pet owners and rescuers find themselves in trouble when they take in too many animals or when their animals’ reproduction rate outstrips their ability to care for them. Others cannot face euthanasia, instead keeping animals whose quality of life is miserably low.

Holly Cheever, a veterinarian based in Voorheesville who has worked on hundreds of hoarding cases over more than 20 years, said the poor economy has led to more dumped animals and hard times for people who once could afford to properly care for a large number of animals.

Hoarding isn’t new, Cheever said, but it is recognized more. Due to 10 years worth of research by a consortium hosted by Tufts University and exposure in the national media, including the TV show “Animal Hoarders,” people know what hoarding is now. There is increased detection and reporting, Cheever said.

In 1997, the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) was formed by the Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, Boston University, Northeastern University, Smith College and the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The researchers came from a variety of backgrounds — animal welfare and humane law enforcement; sociology; social work and rehabilitation services; veterinary medicine and hoarding psychology and intervention.

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