Animal Hoarding: When Helping Gets Out of Hand

“Ron” sat in the “cat room” of his sister’s Las Vegas home and tried to make some sense of the scene around him.

He’d always known his sister had a lot of cats; he just didn’t know how many.

That day, there were 24 cats in his sister’s home, some friendly and clamoring for his attention, others unsocialized and skittish. A few of the cats peered out from inside some old, worn couches. Had his sister become an animal hoarder?

The cats had plenty of food and fresh water, but they were living in filth. Their cat boxes were overflowing, and the ammonia from their urine was so intense that Ron worried it might have damaged the cats’ eyes.

He knew he had to do something. He put on a mask, rolled up his sleeves, and scrubbed down the cat room and cleaned the cat boxes. Before returning home to Redondo Beach, California, he made sure his sister had plenty of cat food, litter, medications and cleaning supplies.

But when he got home, he couldn’t get the cats’ haunted eyes out of his mind.

A short time later, he was reading the May 2006 issue of Best Friends magazine when he came across a story on how Best Friends had come to the rescue of 1,600 rabbits living in the backyard of a mobile home in Reno, Nevada. Accompanying the story was a sidebar about animal hoarding, including descriptions of different kinds of hoarders. Ron immediately recognized his sister in the description of the “overwhelmed caregiver.”

The overwhelmed caregiver hoarder is often aware that things have gotten out of hand, perhaps aggravated by an illness or the death of a spouse who was helping. While these hoarders are often strongly attached to the animals, they don’t object to people coming in to help. They often acquire the animals passively, like the neighborhood cat lady who finds kittens dropped off at her home.

“It totally rang a bell,” Ron says.

Ron showed the article to his sister. Tears welled up in her eyes. In that one little paragraph, “Sarah” saw herself.

Animal hoarders: It often starts with kindness

Ten years ago, Sarah had just two cats. Then her now-ex-husband brought home a litter of four kittens he’d found in a field behind his workplace on Las Vegas’ busy Boulder Highway.

Not long after, he brought home another abandoned litter of kittens. And then Sarah herself found a litter of kittens and their mother. Each time, she took the kittens under her wing, hand-feeding them with tiny baby bottles until they were able to eat on their own.

She turned to local rescue organizations for help with vaccinations and spay/neuter. She had no intention of keeping the cats. She made phone call after phone call to humane groups and tacked up flyers everywhere. She managed to place two of the kittens with a rescue group. Two other kittens died of feline leukemia.

For a while, Sarah was able to keep up with her growing cat population. Then she hit a string of bad luck: a divorce, an illness and a trio of car accidents, the last one leaving her nearly immobile with a fractured back. She couldn’t keep up with caring for the cats, who were starting to fight with each other, leaving some of them timid and seemingly feral. That’s when Ron intervened. And Sarah was happy to let him do just that. “He’s the most wonderful person in the world,” Sarah says of her brother. “He took charge.”

A mission of the heart

Ron made it his mission to find homes for his sister’s cats. He made a spreadsheet listing every rescue organization within a 300-mile radius of Las Vegas and began contacting them one by one. He created a website with the cats’ photos and a description of each one, along with his contact information.

“I kept saying to myself, ‘You have to do what’s in front of your face when it’s in front of your face,’” Ron says. “I couldn’t look in their eyes and not do something.” Even though it was a depressing situation, Ron tried to maintain a sense of humor about it all. It kept him sane.

“It seems to me that most people working with or for rescues and shelters have to deal with enough heartbreak,” says Ron, who describes himself as an animal lover first and a graphic artist second. “A little laughter is the best medicine.”

In his effort to find homes, one of the calls Ron made was to Liz Finch, an animal help specialist at Best Friends. Finch immediately contacted everyone in Best Friends’ West Coast database.

Finch says Best Friends receives 30 to 50 hoarding-related calls a month. Some are from concerned relatives like Ron, and others are from hoarders themselves. Those calls must be treated with the utmost care if there’s any hope of helping the animals involved.

“You have to rein in your personal judgment,” Finch says. “You have to say, ‘I understand your situation and how you got to this point.’ Quite often, they’re in a panic state. You have to talk them down. You have to say, ‘This isn’t a horrible thing. You’re not a horrible person, but it’s going to take a while to find safe places for these animals.’”

The important thing, she notes, is to not chase the caller away.

“I have a finite amount of time that I’m their best friend,” she says. “The next thing I know, I’m their enemy.”

Soon, Ron started receiving calls from individuals and organizations offering to help. He himself adopted one of the cats, and he found homes for six others. He placed five cats with rescue groups in southern Utah, something he jokingly refers to as “the Utah trifecta.” Buttons, Patches and Punkin Puss are at Furever Friends in Cedar City, Tablets is at PAWS in St. George, and Squeaky is at Best Friends.

Ron drove 1,100 miles in 2 1/2 days to deliver the cats to their new homes and safe havens.

Sarah has since moved to a new home with her remaining 12 cats. She plans to keep the older cats, who are 10, 11 and 12 years old, and continues to look for new homes for the others. And unlike most other hoarders, she has made no attempt to take in more animals. She still puts food outside for the occasional stray, but that’s as close as they’ll get to her front door.

“I have to say no and that’s it,” she says.

Ron says his quest to find homes for the cats was a mission of the heart.

“I was originally saddened and burdened that this situation with my sister’s cats compelled me to take this journey,” Ron says. “Now, I realize it was a journey that had to be taken.”

Ron has some advice for other relatives and friends of ovewhelmed caregivers: “Be more aware. Don’t be judgmental, but don’t ignore it.”

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