Lawmakers tackle animal hoarding

States look to new laws to address animal hoarders
Published on April 15, 2003
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When more than 562 malnourished and neglected dogs were confiscated from the rural home of an Oregon couple accused of animal hoarding in January 2003, local authorities and animal shelters were saddled with the difficult and costly task of providing medical care, food, and shelter, and eventually finding homes for the animals.

"It can be very draining," according to Karen Allanach, a spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States, which often provides support for communities dealing with massive hoarding cases.

No estimate of the cost of handling this case was available. Dave Pauli, director of the Northern Rockies regional office of the HSUS, who has participated in more 20 major hoarding cases, said it's difficult to estimate the costs of dealing with massive animal hoarding cases. Dozens of agencies and organizations may participate, and residents, veterinarians, and veterinary technicians may donate their time or services.

Law enforcement officers and prosecutors in Oregon also were faced with the challenge of deciding how to charge the couple. Not an easy task, according to Dr. Gary Patronek, director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy and the founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium. Most states and municipalities do not have laws that specifically address animal hoarding. Law enforcement often must write a separate citation for each offense for each animal.

When animal hoarders are charged with many minor citations, such as failure to provide proper nutrition, sanitation, veterinary care, licensing, and vaccinations, more serious charges may be buried and it may seem that law enforcement is being overly aggressive and harassing a well-meaning person, according to Dr. Patronek. It may create reasonable doubt because it may appear person meant well but became overwhelmed; however, this is one case where the whole is much worse than the sum of its parts.

Some experts on hoarding believe animal hoarding may be caused by serious psychological problems, akin to obsessive-compulsive disorders. Hoarding cases often involve extreme cruelty and neglect. Dozens of animals may die or become ill in these situations. The health of the hoarder and other individuals in the household may be compromised by a complete breakdown in sanitation.

"(A series of minor citations) makes it seem like the offenses were fairly trivial and the general public, as well as, the courts, can sympathize with these people more easily," Dr. Patronek said. "There is a unique and serious pathology present with animal hoarding that is not addressed well by the serial citation approach."

Penalties for these minor infractions are often weak, he said, and prosecution rarely leads to a concerted plan to help prevent recidivism.

In fact, the couple currently facing charges of animal mischief in Oregon had previously been charged with animal cruelty in Idaho in 1996. At that time, the Idaho Humane Society confiscated several hundred animals from the couple. The couple avoided an animal cruelty conviction by plea bargaining and was allowed to keep some of the animals, according to Pauli.

"I think the current system makes it easier for the animal hoarder to hide behind claims of being an animal rescuer or no-kill shelter," Dr. Patronek said, emphasizing that animal hoarding is not legitimate animal sheltering.

Taking a stand
In 2001, Illinois became the first state to pass a law that specifically addresses animal hoarding. Animal welfare groups have heralded the Illinois law as model legislation and some states are following suit, providing law enforcement with tools for prosecuting animal hoarders.

The Illinois law has several components that experts believe are important,
including that it:
  • Defines an animal hoarder
  • Emphasizes that the hoarder does not recognize the problem
  • Increases the penalty for animal hoarding
  • Recommends psychiatric help for offenders

"This is the most comprehensive piece of legislation to date," Dr. Patronek said.

State legislators in New Mexico, Vermont, and Montana have proposed laws that specifically address animal hoarding. Other states, including Wyoming and Idaho, are revisiting existing anticruelty laws to address the problems associated with animal hoarding cases in response to the recent case in Idaho.

"Some of these large animal hoarding cases, like the one in Oregon, propel legislation," Allanach said.

Reducing the suffering
Good animal hoarding laws can help prevent repeat offenders, according to experts; however, early intervention is key to reducing the suffering of the animals and people involved in these cases.

About 130 of the dogs confiscated in Oregon—mostly small breeds—had to be euthanatized. Because of the attention the case received, however, Pauli said the demand to adopt the surviving dogs exceeds the supply.

To learn more about how veterinarians can help prevent animal hoarding, read the story on animal hoarding in the Oct. 15, 2002 issue of JAVMA. Or visit the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium Web site,