Animal hoarding is a form of neglect that occurs when people—folks who may manifest obsessive tendencies associated with mental illness—accumulate large numbers of creatures and then fail to provide proper sanitation, food, or veterinary care for them. When animal hoarding occurs in urban and suburban areas, observant neighbors often alert authorities to the problem.
But what if no one is around to notice?
In rural and underserved communities, areas that lack adequate levels of animal control and social services, detecting and preventing animal hoarding gets harder. For nearly 40 animals suffering in rural Bledsoe County, Tennessee, only a chance encounter with an HSUS Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) team in June saved them from the horrors of animal hoarding.
Early this summer, a RAVS clinic was underway in Pikeville, as part of the program’s Appalachian Project. The project provides free veterinary care and spay/neuter surgeries to pets of owners who otherwise cannot afford them.
One woman brought her dog to be spayed, but at first glance, the RAVS veterinarian determined the animal was clearly in no condition for surgery. Clinic coordinator Tammy Rouse noted that the veterinarian who examined the dog found that she was suffering from severe mange and heartworm disease, all complicated by emaciation. The veterinarian’s advice was to humanely euthanize the dog and end her suffering. When Rouse discussed the dog’s condition with the owner, she learned that the woman had another dog at home in a similar state. Rouse convinced the woman to bring the other dog to the clinic for evaluation.
The second dog was in worse shape than the first. “She was covered with infected, oozing tumors, one the size of a softball,” said Rouse. “Her toenails had grown so long that she couldn’t walk.”
This dog was also emaciated. Rouse tried to determine what other animals might be in need, and offered to visit the woman’s home with some of the volunteer veterinary students.
What they found shocked even Rouse, who is seasoned in handling animal cruelty cases.
At the couple’s ramshackle mobile home, Rouse and the student volunteers found numerous dogs, most underweight and showing hair loss. There was no running water in the home; animal feces carpeted the floor, which had collapsed in places, and the couple was using bleach bottles for toilets. The homeowners allowed Rouse to take photographs, and also agreed that she could take six puppies and one adult dog to place up for adoption.
“We felt good about removing those seven dogs that day,” said Rouse, “all of whom were treated by the veterinary students out of their own pockets. But we knew we had to help the remaining animals.”
Planning the Rescue
Rouse went to Amanda Cox, the district attorney she regularly works with in Union County. After seeing the photos, Cox helped arrange a meeting with the Bledsoe County district attorney and sheriff. They agreed to prosecute, and on June 15, the Bledsoe County Sheriff’s Department served a search warrant at the property. A team comprised of several HSUS staff members, RAVS veterinarians and student volunteers, and volunteers with horse trailers helped rescue the animals.
Team members removed a rabbit, a duck, a pig, two horses, three chickens, and 30 dogs from the property, and transported them to the Young-Williams Animal Center in Knoxville where veterinarians and veterinary students provided health assessments and volunteers gave each animal affection and food.
Rouse credited the RAVS veterinary students who helped on the case. “We couldn’t have done it without them,” she said.
Eleven of the dogs were in such poor health that they had to be humanely euthanized. The remaining animals, however, were transferred to other animal care organizations for rehabilitation and adoption, including the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley shelter.
“None of the dogs are vicious,” HSTV’s Executive Director, Vicki Crosetti, told the Knoxville News-Sentinel, ”but some of them are going to need some socialization with people. They are just frightened, and many of them are so thin they will have to put on some weight before they can be spayed or neutered.”
The defendants in the case failed to appear for their arraignment on July 6, prompting the judge to order that they be held without bond once apprehended. However, because of weak animal cruelty laws in Tennessee, the offending couple can only be charged with misdemeanors. As of July 29, authorities had yet to determine the couple’s whereabouts.
Rouse stressed that The HSUS was seeking the involvement of adult protective services for the couple, who fit the profile of animal hoarders. Besides accumulating large numbers of animals they cannot care for, hoarders also endanger their own health by living in such squalid conditions. Many mental health professionals recognize hoarding as a form of mental illness.
“More and more communities are finding the most successful approach to animal hoarding situations involve a task force approach with officials from animal control, the local mental health agency, and code enforcement—to ensure the conditions for both the animals and humans are improved,” said HSUS Director of Animal Sheltering Issues, Kate Pullen.
Rouse also draws the connection between a lack of animal care and control services and the hoarding phenomenon.
“I’ve been involved with five more hoarder cases in eastern Tennessee since Bledsoe County,” she points out, “all of them in rural counties with no animal control.”
She surmises that when people don’t have a safe place to take unwanted animals, those animals may end up with hoarders, who take in animals well beyond their ability to care for them.