Animal hoarding: It’s time we showed compassion to animal and human victims

The issue of companion animal hoarding can be tricky.   Compassionate people of course want to end animal suffering, and so seeing neglected animals being removed en masse from hoarders’ dwellings on the news is tough to watch.   But on the other hand this country (and others) does not hold a successful record in applying the law to what should be left to the psychiatry or psychology professions.

The American Psychological Association (APA) appears not, as yet, to have directly addressed animal hoarding.   For the longest time, I have been unable to find mention of it in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV-TR (nor in the DSM V).   The DSM simply mentions hoarding as a general symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder.   Viewed this way, that is, as a psycho-social disability, animal hoarders do not have the intent to hurt animals; rather, they are helplessly trapped in a compulsion.   So should we as a society really be stigmatizing sufferers of this rare phenomenon by criminalizing a disability that its sufferers can’t seem to help?  

And to be quite frank, I get nervous when the nanny state gets involved in these types of issues and starts legislating the seeming solution.   For instance, Illinois currently has a bill pending, HB 11661, that would define companion animal hoarding as, “…a person who…possesses 7 or more companion animals.”   This is a ridiculous and arbitrary number.   If this law passed, then anyone who owned more than seven hamsters would suddenly be an animal hoarder under Illinois law.   Absurd but true.   Companion animals are defined as any animal kept as a pet.   So, if your hamster or gerbil has babies (and hamsters and gerbils usually give birth to 5-8 babies), you could potentially be an animal hoarder if HB 1166 passes in the state of Illinois.

Existing law in Illinois additionally defines a companion animal hoarder as a person who,

“… displays an inability to recognize or understand the nature of or has a reckless disregard for the conditions under which the companion animals are living and the deleterious impact they have on the companion animals’ and owner’s health and well-being.”

HB 1166, if passed, would also put into law escalating penalties for animal hoarding, from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class 4 felony.   Yet, if animal hoarders have “an inability to recognize or understand the nature of…the deleterious impact they have on the companion animals’ and owner’s health and well-being” then how can they potentially be slapped with a misdemeanor or even a felony?   In other words, how can you criminalize a behavior that the alleged offender isn’t even aware is harmful or wrong???

We as a society don’t prosecute Alzheimer patients or schizophrenics when they are violent because they are unaware of their behavior and therefore not responsible for it.   Would the state of Illinois — and indeed any state that considers similar types of legislation — have us return to the days of Nazism when Hitler had the mentally ill locked away like criminals? (And we know what Hitler did once he locked people away.   He “eliminated” the problem by eliminating the person.)   We’ve heard too, law enforcement saying they could crack down on animal hoarding if they could get earlier access to alleged hoarders’ homes.   But should we just give law enforcement carte blanche access to our homes so that they can rest assured we’re not doing anything illegal?

The nanny state likes to say nowadays that “If you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to worry about” to defend things like unconstitutional checkpoints.   It’s almost like a mantra now for a surveillance state hell-bent on tracking its populace and criminalizing every little thing.   So as a Constitutionalist, you bet I have a problem with the nanny state trying to pry itself into people’s homes via nanny-state legislation.   So that leaves us to ask, what are some more reasonable solutions to the animal hoarding problem that will satisfy all sides; that will allow both the animal and the human victims to get treatment while still respecting the law and the Constitution?

Well, I may not have the full answer to what to do with those unfortunate enough to suffer from the compulsion of animal hoarding — though a drug and therapy regimen tailored to the specific individual looks promising — but I know what the answer isn’t.   The answer isn’t criminalization via legislation that allows law enforcement carte blanche access to our homes.   I understand that it is hard to get a warrant to search the premises of a possible hoarder, but that’s because this country values the 4th amendment right to privacy, and rightfully so.   But folks like veterinarians, meter readers, mail carriers, concerned neighbors, and especially family members, can be instrumental in helping law enforcement or Animal Control in getting the animals out of a harmful situation and getting the hoarder or hoarders some help. After all, it doesn’t take long for that smell to make it out into the surrounding neighborhood or area.   And no, I’m not suggesting we all narc on our neighbors either, but true sufferers of animal hoarding need help just like their animal victims.

And how about a welfare check?   How hard is it for a neighbor to knock on another neighbor’s door and check up on them?   We do this during hurricanes, blizzards, heat waves, and floods, so why not try to help out a neighbor who may struggle with caring for their pets?   And, if it’s obvious that the person can’t care for their pets, well, then yes, there’s a tough decision to make about contacting law enforcement or Animal Control, but hopefully it gets the person on the road to recovery and the animals out of a bad situation.

Perhaps the problem is that we’ve become isolated in our own homes and caught up in our own lives.   When our American society was more Christian, it was common for neighbor to help out neighbor.   Now, it doesn’t even occur to us to try to offer help to those in need, but maybe it should.   Yes, why in our haste to save the animals have we as a society seemingly forgotten that the humans involved in animal hoarding are victims too?   The Illinois bill spells it out: animal hoarding is “deleterious,” a fancy word meaning harmful, to both the companion animals and the owner’s health and well-being.   Yet while the Illinois bill acknowledges that the hoarders themselves are also victims along with their animals, the bill would make potential felons of the hoarders anyway.   Do those proposing such legislation really think someone would choose to live the way some of these animal hoarders’ homes have been found with the stink of feces, urine, and death?

Indeed, trying to legislate the problem away isn’t going to work.   If animal hoarders knew what they were doing, they would already be breaking the law by being cruel to animals; since they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re not going to suddenly abide by additional legislation that limits them to only a certain number of animals or requires them to get a permit for more than a certain number of animals. (All that such legislation accomplishes is to punish law-abiding pet owners who were already abiding by the law and to potentially put loved and cared-for companion animals out of their homes.)   But neighbors could help other neighbors in trouble, and mail carriers, meter readers, and even veterinarians and family members of possible hoarders could be advised to look out for signs of potential hoarding.   In other words, there are opportunities to intervene on behalf of the animal and human victims of animal hoarding well before legislators get involved.   We as a society simply need to make a commitment to advocate for and protect our weakest members   — the sick, the infirm, or the differently-abled — whether they be humans or animals.   We should not tolerate any kind of legislation or even mentality that seeks to punish victims for wrongs they aren’t even aware of committing.

1. I must take issue with HB 1166’s further nanny requirement that “a person must obtain a permit from ‘the Board’ to possess 7 or more companion animals” and that “failure to receive a permit for the possession of 7 or more companion animals is a violation and a person is guilty of a Class B misdemeanor and a second or subsequent violation is a Class 4 felony with every day that a violation continues constituting a separate offense.” So, not only would Illinois be criminalizing those with a psycho-social disability, they would potentially be putting well-cared for pets out of their homes and foster care. Really, what is a person to do if their county board does not extend a scepter to them and for reasons of anything ranging from personal vendetta to power drunkenness decides not to give someone a permit? Or what if a radical animal rightist gets on “the Board” and decides not to give anyone a permit? We’ve seen these radicals infiltrate Animal Controls and proceed to put into place their agenda of death (think Toledo and Denver). Why should a county board be immune?

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