Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dog Hoarding: When Do You Cross the Line?


  Five? 10? 20? 100? You can't tell a hoarder by the number of dogs -- or can you?

 You love your dog, so you get another to keep her company. And then you find a stray and you have to take him home. Then you see this irresistible dog who needs a place to bunk down, so naturally he becomes part of your household. Another dog comes into your life, and you can’t say no. You love them all, and give them a good home, so occasionally people just dump a dog on you.

Your canine brood grows. It gets a little crowded, but you’re okay. You know you have more dogs than most people, but you can handle it, and the dogs need you. At some point, you might get strange looks. Then someone may refer to you by the "H" word: Hoarder.
Wait! What? You can’t be a hoarder. You love your pets, and you don’t have hundreds, or even dozens, or all that many compared to those stories you read. But some people still look at you askance, as if they’re saying, "There goes that crazy dog lady!" And you might start wondering just where the line is drawn between hoarding and just having a larger-than-normal number of pets. Is it a certain state of mind coupled with certain actions, or is there a magic number? Are you defined as not a hoarder at X number of dogs, but once you pass that, you tip the scales into lightweight hoarding?

Of course, there is no simple equation. It’s about much more than numbers. There are many theories about what makes someone a dog hoarder (here's a good article about pet hoarding/collecting), but there’s no clearly defined number cutoff. If someone with X dogs cares for his dogs but isn’t keeping them in ideal conditions, how does the law differentiate between him and someone with X+1 (or more) dogs who are given the best care the owner knows how to give?

I started thinking about this question when I read about two Pennsylvania brothers who pleaded guilty to animal cruelty after nearly 200 dogs, mostly Chihuahuas, were discovered in their house. Like most other hoarders, they truly loved the animals and thought they were doing what was best for them. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, it was hard for the brothers to enter the guilty plea. They said they “treated the dogs like our boys and girls.”

What set these men apart from many hoarders was the condition of the dogs in general. Unlike what’s found in many hoarding cases, most of the dogs were in decent shape. “Veterinarians who checked the Chihuahuas -- plus two other dogs that were also removed from the residence -- found no serious health issues, only minor eye, teeth and skin problems, and officials say they apparently came from a loving home,” the article said.

Yes, authorities found the bodies of 30 dogs in the freezer, but they’d died of natural causes. (Not being able to part with the bodies of deceased pets is another of the characteristics of many hoarders.) Unlike the case of Rosie, the severely deformed Chihuahua we’ve been writing about since her rescue from a hoarder in June, there were apparently no calamitous deformities from inbreeding issues in this household.

The brothers' situation is a classic hoarding case, perhaps minus the decent physical conditions of the dogs. But where did they stop becoming simply super-caring dog lovers taking in their share of dogs to becoming hoarders? Again, before I get accused of oversimplifying things, I realize that hoarding/collecting animals is a very complex psychological issue; it’s anything but clear-cut.

At one point, fellow author and Dogster writer Julia Szabo had five large dogs living in her small NYC apartment. She’s down to four, but it seems people still talk.

"While most people say nice things about how kind I am to rescue, and how healthy and happy and well-socialized my dogs are, etc., a few (mostly anonymously, online) have accused me of being a hoarder," Julia wrote me. "These lovely folks call themselves 'true animal lovers,' and such. To which I say, if y'all were such true animal lovers, maybe you'd have ONE dog each, so I wouldn't have to have four or five?"

Her dogs are all rescues, and generally sleep in her bed –- yes, the non-kingsize bed you see above. If Julia lived in a big country home, no one would ever consider her a hoarder. But that fact that she’s a single gal living in a small one-bedroom apartment in New York City with four big pooches tips the scales for some people.

If you saw her apartment, you would shake your head at those who hurl around the H word so easily. It is neat. It is lovely. Yes, it may have more doggy doodads than the average NYC apartment, but it's definitely not the abode of a hoarder. My one-dog, one-child house should be so well organized.

Years ago I knew a woman in my San Francisco neighborhood. She had somehow accumulated about 10 dogs through her rescue efforts and failed foster attempts. Her yard was kind of stinky, and in her house you were lucky not to trip on Kongs and tennis balls and rawhide bones. But it wasn’t unhealthy, just slightly cluttered with dog toys –- and dogs. Her landlord (yes, she was a renter) was getting pretty balky about all those critters, and she was way over the city’s dog limit. I remember clearly when she told me she was going to move to Montana to live on a few acres she was buying with her partner. “We can keep the dogs, but no more of them. I’m not a hoarder, at least I don’t think so, but I was beginning to worry.”

No comments: