You never get used to a hoarder’s house
By Shirley Zindler, December 2011

The stench of garbage, urine and feces hit me as I entered the home. Sunlight slanted through a broken window and illuminated the clutter and sparkles of dust in the air. Cats and small dogs bolted in every direction, frantic to hide from the stranger in their midst. The place was littered with empty pet food cans, old magazines, clothes, dishes and boxes. Ammonia stung my eyes and throat as I wandered from room to room. I found the bodies of several cats and a dog among the debris. I’ve been in hoarder houses before, but you just never get used to it.

The owner sat dejectedly on her front step. After weeks of negotiations, we finally convinced her to let us help with her pets, which had reproduced to the point that she couldn’t care for them. She was a pleasant woman in her sixties and no one would ever guess that she walked out of this mess every day.

There were multiple violations: too many animals, public nuisance, sanitation, health codes, etc. After making a rough count of about 15 dogs and maybe 25 cats, I came back out and sat next to her. “You understand that I’m here to help, don’t you?” I said. Tears slid down her face. She nodded sadly. I asked her a few things about herself and the animals in an attempt to develop a rapport with her.

She took a deep breath and explained that a pregnant dog had shown up a few years earlier. The mother and her pups had then continued to interbreed. She had also taken in some cats, which reproduced at will. She was in way over her head.

Animal hoarding is considered a form of mental illness marked by keeping more pets than a person can reasonably care for. In most cases, the hoarder believes they have rescued the animals and that no one else could possibly care for them. This woman was a fairly small-scale hoarder. Some cases involve hundreds of animals, in terrible conditions.

I explained that she needed to get down to a reasonable number of animals or she would be taken to court. I again reminded her that I was there to help. Some hoarders will never agree to surrender their pets but in this case I convinced her to sign over all but one dog and arranged to have that one neutered.

It was a huge undertaking to remove the animals. I contacted a variety of rescues to help with the case and I took a pregnant dog home to foster. I hoped to have her spayed immediately but she delivered three puppies before the clinic opened. Two of them died soon after birth due to congenital issues, likely resulting from inbreeding. I worked with Mama for months, hand-feeding her and sitting with her but she was feral and could not tolerate any type of contact. She let me handle her baby, however, and fat little “Spud” received daily attention and cuddling from birth. He loved everyone and found a forever home at eight-weeks-old.

Sadly, Mama never came around to the point she could be adopted. I worked so hard to help her overcome her past, but it was not to be. I know that many of the other dogs and cats had to be euthanized for health and temperament issues as well. It can be so heartbreaking to be involved in things like this, to try and fix other people’s mistakes and fail. I have to comfort myself with the thought that Spud is in a loving home. The health department condemned the owner’s house; she moved to an apartment and I lost track of her. Most hoarders will reoffend in a short time. I hope she will be the exception.

Shirley Zindler is an animal control officer in Northern California, and has personally fostered and rehomed more than 300 dogs. She has competed in obedience, agility, conformation and lure coursing, and has done pet therapy. Zindler just wrote a book The Secret Lives of Dog Catchers, about her experiences and contributes to Bark’s blog on a regular basis.

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