Capital News Service

of the Michigan State University School of Journalism

Pets suffer when owners can’t say no to more animals

By ANGIE JACKSON
Capital News Service

LANSING – For some pet owners, love knows no bounds. And animal hoarding –owning more pets than one can adequately care for — usually develops from love, experts say.

Mary Pelton-Cooper, a psychology professor at Northern Michigan University, said animal hoarding is a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder among people who may neglect their animals’ need for food, water, sanitation and care, despite good intentions.

“They think they’re caring for their animals and it spirals out of control,” Pelton-Cooper said. “They don’t have the problem-solving skills to stop.”

In one recent situation, 13 dogs and five birds were rescued in October from a Monterey Township man with a history of owning exotic pets such as an emu and a bear. The Allegan County Animal Shelter has custody of five of the dogs, and more court hearings lie ahead.

“Conditions were bad,” said shelter coordinator Allison Koster. “There was no food or water left out. It was just gross.”

Pelton-Cooper said an animal hoarder may understand that they have too many pets, but can’t stop.  The process goes in loops and ultimately, they’re trying to avoid the anxiety that would come from giving up their animals.

“They don’t experience it in the same way you or I would,” Pelton-Cooper said. “They may know it’s bad, but to them, living in feces is better than the uneasiness they’d feel giving the animals away.”

When taken to court, animal hoarders can be charged with animal cruelty.

For example, in September, the Oakland County Animal Control seized 13 malnourished horses in Rose Township, and their owner was sentenced to two years’ probation in November. One horse was put down and most of the others have been adopted, but five still need homes, said animal control supervisor Joanie Toole.

“If we feel as though animals are in the danger of dying or suffering, then we yank them. A lot of it had to do with financially, she couldn’t afford to feed the horses,” Toole said.

The animal control agency had given the owner one chance to improve conditions but she didn’t take advantage of it, Toole said.

While animal hoarding is a form of neglect, Chandra Grabill, a psychologist at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, said many animal hoarders believe that keeping their pets, even in unhealthy conditions, is a valid way to help them.

“They often have strong emotional ties to animals,” Grabill said, adding that there are several reasons people hoard animals, such as anxiety disorders, delusions and extreme social isolation.

Jamie McAloon Lampman, director of Ingham County Animal Control, said she’s entered houses filled with decaying animal carcasses where the owners professed their love for their pets and meant it.

“We work hard to help hoarders, but it’s a no-win battle. No matter how hard they try to curb their behavior, they are like addicts to animals,” she said.

Northern Michigan’s Pelton-Cooper said hoarders often lack close human relationships. Their pets fill that void by providing a sense of closeness. Hoarders are commonly homebound, such as the elderly or people who don’t work.

And with such a secluded lifestyle, it’s difficult for an outsider to detect an animal hoarder, said Dayna Kennedy, shelter manager of the Marquette County Humane Society.

It’s important for anyone who suspects animal abuse to contact the local police department or animal control, she said.

“There’s absolutely nothing else we can do besides hope we get tips and make sure that people are held accountable,” Kennedy said, noting that hoarders avoid shelters and often acquire animals through newspaper advertisements or online instead.

“A lot of hoarders live in rural areas. Unfortunately, it’s hard to spot if they’re here because people don’t come around as much,” she said. “The mailmen and the meter readers are the ones who see it.”

Pelton-Cooper said, “When people engage in these kinds of behavior, they’re trying in their own way to help maintain their sanity. It’s hard for them to imagine how anyone else, or animals, feel.”

© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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