Social workers turn attention to animal hoarders

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Dealing with animal hoarding should be about helping the hoarders as well as the animals, according to social workers who consult on such cases.

Social workers increasingly are tending to the human issues that arise in human-animal relationships (see story). Just a few social workers have focused specifically on animal hoarding, however.

"Without counseling, you're going to see recidivism," said Jane N. Nathanson, a Boston social worker in private practice who counsels animal hoarders. "You're not addressing the needs of the person."

In some cases, Nathanson said, the animals might need immediate rescue. In other cases, she said, local authorities or humane organizations might try to gain the cooperation of the hoarder.

Jennifer A. Coffey is a social worker in New York City who has conducted hands-on intervention in cases of animal hoarding. A few years ago, she consulted on animal hoarding full time for the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene as part of a project in collaboration with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Coffey and an ASPCA representative assessed hoarding cases in terms of human and animal welfare. The project interceded in cases of "overwhelmed caregivers" rather than cases of "exploitive hoarders," Coffey said, and participation was voluntary.

The first step was to stop the animals from reproducing, so the ASPCA would send a veterinarian in a mobile clinic to provide free sterilization services. The veterinarian also was able to provide vaccinations and assess the health of the animals.

The next step was to convince the hoarder to reduce the animal population over a period of time.

"We reduced a lot of the populations by going in and having animals voluntarily relinquished," Coffey said. "Oftentimes, when we were able to do that, we were able to 'reduce' the most adoptable animals. And they could go to rescue groups throughout New York City."

Coffey and the ASPCA representative sought to connect hoarders with cleaning and counseling services, then monitored cases to make sure hoarders did not acquire more animals.

Now Coffey directs a program for the Mayor's Alliance for NYC's Animals that provides housing for the pets of people staying temporarily in shelters, but she still consults on some hoarding cases. One of her current cases is a situation that started with 24 cats in a one-bedroom apartment. She is removing one cat a month, with a goal of reducing the population to about eight.

Nathanson counsels many animal hoarders who deny that they have a problem. She receives referrals from courts, humane organizations, and family members.

Typically, animal hoarders lack sufficient or satisfactory human relationships, Nathanson said. They think that having more animals will make them feel better.

"They've created a world apart, where they've derived their sense of identity, their self-esteem, and a sense of control," Nathanson said.

Many counselors address hoarding of inanimate objects, Nathanson said, but too few address hoarding of sentient beings. Nevertheless, she thinks society has become more aware of the issue of animal hoarding—and is beginning to realize that the hoarders need assistance as much as the animals.