Sunday, January 07, 2001

Animal hoarders offend, perplex

Filth and deterioration often follow

By Karen Samples
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NORWOOD — Every night, the old woman slept upright in a chair. She had no choice. Her cats — more than 50 of them — had destroyed everything else.

        Inbred and mostly wild, the animals clawed her furniture to shreds. They left feces on tables, countertops and floors. They gnawed on family photographs, delivered kittens in closets and sprayed urine everywhere.

        The woman thought health officials were stalking her, according to her testimony in a court hearing. She covered her front windows with plastic and refused to answer her door. She even shooed her daughter away.

  It's not the number of pets but how they and their owners live that defines hoarding. Someone with 20 dogs who keeps them in a healthy, sanitary condition would not be considered a hoarder, according to experts.
  The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium says hoarders:
  • Accumulate a large number of animals.
  • Fail to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care.
  • Fail to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals or their environments.
  • Fail to act on or recognize the negative impact of their animal collecting on their own health and well-being.
        When authorities finally intervened in August, they nearly gagged from the stench. Their shoes stuck to the floor. A firefighter threw up.

        Besides cats, the place was swarming with fleas and flies, city records show. Maggots crawled around trash bags on the kitchen floor. Dead insects hung in the woman's curtains. Cat hair encrusted her phone.

        The woman's daughter, Barbara Gamstetter of Dayton, Ohio, stood in the hallway and struggled not to cry.

        “I hadn't seen the house. The devastation was overwhelming,” she told the Enquirer later. “It's just so awful - you have all these official people there, and she makes it so difficult to help her.”

Driven to collect

        On her street in Norwood, Ms. Gamstetter's 84-year-old mother was known as “the cat lady.”

        Experts prefer the term “animal hoarder.”

        Psychiatrists are just beginning to study the phenomenon, but humane societies have struggled with hoarders for years. Their behavior is one of the most perplexing mysteries of the human condition.

        Animal hoarders are driven to collect many more pets than they can handle. They often live in tremendous filth, endangering not only their animals but themselves and neighbors. The quality of life on entire streets can be destroyed by the foul smell and the insects that hoarding attracts.

        Public agencies are the first to admit they're often at a loss.

        “Nobody's really sure what to do with these cases,” says Chuck Vaughn, an assistant Kenton County attorney. “It is such a large problem. If you do shut down (a hoarder), what do you do with the 100 dogs you've got?”

        To better understand the problem, a national consortium is studying the motivations and thought patterns of these unusual people.

        They tend to be female, older and solitary, perhaps with compulsive personalities or a strong need to nurture. They consider themselves especially in tune with animals, but they fail to recognize when their pets are suffering.

        Their behavior may be a warning sign for dementia or other mental illness, says Gary Patronek, a veterinarian and epidemiologist at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.

        In Greater Cincinnati, no one knows for certain the extent of the problem. Twenty-one hoarding cases were investigated last year by Hamilton County's animal-control agency. Dog wardens in other counties report two to three cases a year. Others are handled by police or health departments, which don't keep statistics.

        Nationwide, about 1,600 hoarding cases are reported each year, Dr. Patronek estimates.

        “A great majority of communities have hoarding going on. It's one of the hardest things to uncover,” says Phil Snyder, a regional director with the Humane Society of the United States.

        "And then when you uncover it, it's not very easy to do anything about.”

Secrets behind the door

        If the numbers are unclear, the consequences are not.

        While denying the squalor, hoarders attempt to hide it from prying eyes. They frequently manage to hold down jobs, pay their taxes and keep their lawns mowed — just enough normalcy to conceal the nightmare within.

        Cases in Greater Cincinnati illustrate the link between animal problems and the well-being of their human owners:

        • In October, Bonnie Sarakatsannis died after arriving at a hospital with bed sores and a broken hip. While investigating her son for neglect, authorities found 75 cats and wretched conditions inside a house the woman owned in Fort Thomas. It was condemned.

        • In April, a Cincinnati woman temporarily lost custody of her adolescent daughter after the girl's depression and body odor alarmed a counselor. In the house, police found 50 cats and “feces and urine all over,” court records show.

        Some of the kittens had no eyes, says Terri Baker, a Northern Kentucky veterinary technician who visited the home.

        “Their infections had been untreated for so long, the eyes just ruptured and turned to big masses of scar tissue,” Ms. Baker says.

        • Last spring, housing inspectors were horrified to discover a disabled man lying motionless inside a squalid, animal-filled home on Ishmael Road in rural Kenton County. He survived, but his mother and sister were charged with second-degree wanton endangerment. Their house was condemned and burned to the ground.

        • In an ongoing case, Norwood health officials are attempting to work with another elderly woman suspected of hoarding cats. She occasionally has scratches on her legs, her hair is matted and she reeks of animal waste, Norwood health inspector Jesse Layne says.

        “I'm concerned about the woman,” he says. “She's in pitiful shape.”

"I stuck to that thought'

        Most hoarders start out with good intentions. They get a few animals and can't afford to sterilize them, or they take in strays to keep them from being killed.

        The case of Ms. Gamstetter's mother is an example.

        At Ms. Gamstetter's request, the Enquirer is not naming the woman. She has been diagnosed with age-related dementia and placed under Ms. Gamstetter's guardianship. To get her side of the story, the Enquirer obtained a transcript of the guardianship hearing.

        In court, the elderly woman accused Norwood health officials and police of stalking her, pushing their way into her house and telling “bald-face lies” about the conditions there.

        But she also acknowledged, grudgingly, that she had a cat problem. She started with five that quickly multiplied. She wouldn't take them to Hamilton County's shelter for fear they would be euthanized.

        “I'm not for death in animals or people, and so I put that off,” the woman said.

        She denied that she was mentally impaired.

        “It was lousy planning. It was a lousy situation. But it did take thought, it did take planning, just to live up until the day (the authorities) came in. And it took a lot of, I think I have perhaps an oversupply of, it's not stubbornness, it's just a will to do something.

        “I thought if I worked hard enough it will come out right, and I stuck to that thought, and I guess I stuck to it too long.”

Freedom before safety

        Ms. Gamstetter had suspected her mother was living oddly, but she couldn't get inside to see. In February, she began calling agencies for help.

        It was slow to come — a common problem with hoarding cases.

        To protect people's civil rights, most laws restrict agencies from intervening unless others are being harmed.

        Health and building inspectors can't enter homes unless they have search warrants, which require evidence of crimes or code violations. State social workers can't get involved unless people are deemed mentally incompetent. Poor housekeeping skills — even horrendous, health-endangering filth — isn't enough.

        “It's freedom over safety, if they're competent,” says Dianne Mulholland, an adult protection supervisor with Cincinnati Area Senior Services.

        The Norwood case finally broke in June, when a neighbor reported the smell of rotting flesh. A police officer and Mr. Layne, the health inspector, visited the home. Finding a back door ajar, the officer went inside.

        “There were several cats (about five to 10) all over the kitchen, to include in the cabinet and the sink. The floor was covered in hair and feces from the cats,” he wrote in an affidavit.

        The elderly woman discovered him there and ordered him out, but what he had seen was enough. On Aug. 14, a team of social workers and others gathered at the house.

        Confronted with so many officials, the woman reluctantly agreed to go to a hospital for medical observation. The property was deemed unfit for human occupancy, and officers began trapping cats.

        “They were like something out of a wild horror movie,” Ms. Gamstetter recalls. “They were frightened of me, but they were vicious. Their eyes were just blazing.”

Delayed reactions

        Hoarding cases cross many jurisdictions — police, social services, health and building inspection, animal control. The agencies don't always communicate effectively, and few have expertise in the phenomenon.

        The result: delays that frustrate everyone.

        “I think what happens is, we're kind of ignorant of what to do, and we get lost,” says Police Chief Tom Collins of Ludlow, a Northern Kentucky river town.

        His city struggled for years with the problem of Walter Schill and his dogs.

        Five years ago, the retired chemist started keeping his seven pets inside all the time because neighbors complained about the barking and smell. Now people say his entire house stinks, preventing them from enjoying their front porches in the summer.

        In January 1999, Mr. Schill accidentally shot his adult son inside the house, police records show. The injury wasn't life-threatening, so Officer Jack Prater refused to enter because of the smell and feces.

        “It just amazes me how someone can live like that and let those dogs do that,” Officer Prater told the Enquirer.

        Mr. Schill, 65, objects to Officer Prater's description of his house. It wasn't full of feces, he says, but rather mold, mildew and ashes from his adult son's cigarettes.

        Nevertheless, Officer Prater reported the situation to the city's building department and the state's Adult Protective Services division. But nothing happened until 1 1/2 years later, when Kenton County animal control officer Dan Evans took an interest in the case.

        Although he doesn't officially cover Ludlow, Mr. Evans obtained a search warrant after observing a 2-inch layer of fecal matter on the porch, records show. He also saw two dogs with severe skin problems and toenails puncturing their footpads, his affidavit states.

        All seven animals were confiscated, and Mr. Schill was charged with animal cruelty. Plea negotiations have stalled because he insists on keeping his dogs. His trial is scheduled for later this month. In the meantime, he is paying $500 a week for his pets' care at the county shelter.

"My babies'

        Hoarders often can't stop, experts say.

        Out of 54 cases in a nationwide study, 32 involved people who were investigated multiple times, says Dr. Patronek, the Tufts University veterinarian.

        Beverlee Van Herpe knows all about the revolving door. Since 1992, she has been in and out of Kenton County District Court over her possession of cats.

        Mrs. Van Herpe and her husband, a lawyer, live in Villa Hills, an upscale Northern Kentucky suburb that limits households to five animals. At one point, Mrs. Van Herpe had 70, she says. A judge banned her from having any, but she kept getting caught, records show.

        In 1994, the city of Covington accused her of creating a public nuisance by renting a vacant house just for the purpose of storing cats, records show. The situation was so complicated that probation officers asked to be taken off the case.

        Two years later, a police officer found more than 15 cats, waist-high piles of garbage and urine-soaked floors while searching the Villa Hills house for unauthorized pets, his affidavit states. Mrs. Van Herpe eventually spent several days in jail.

        In an interview with the Enquirer, she says she turned to cats when her three sons grew up and moved out. She missed her role as a caretaker, she says.

        Her problems started when several strays were dropped off at her house, she says. One had nine litters over four years. Mrs. Van Herpe says she tried to place some for adoption but found herself rejecting potential owners as not caring enough.

        “I thought of them as my babies,” she says.

        She hates the label “hoarder” because it sounds cold, as if the animals were thrown in a building somewhere. She acknowledges, however, that her efforts to protect the cats “did kind of become a compulsion.”

        They destroyed her house, she says. She replaced the carpet with tile and threw out furniture. Now she's back up to the legally permitted number of pets, she says.

        Besides those, “I do have some neighbors' cats that come to my house — we've bonded, I guess — they've come and they'll eat and sleep a little, and then they'll leave,” Mrs. Van Herpe says.

        When an Enquirer reporter stopped by last week, she cracked her door slightly and two kittens tried to run out. She said her house was in too much disarray for visitors.

        The kittens belong to a stray cat who brings them to her house, Mrs. Van Herpe says. She leaves food outside for the stray.

        “I just can't starve the animal,” she says. “It's depended on me.”

How to deal with animal hoarders


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