Inside the mind of a hoarder: How some animal cruelty cases become so extreme

As RCMP in Alberta and Saskatchewan search for the woman at the centre of extreme cases of animal neglect, an expert with the American SPCA sheds lights on the recognized mental illness of animal hoarding.

‘Stereotype of the crazy cat lady is only partially true,’ anti-cruelty expert says

One of the dogs rescues by AARCS in January 2015 from April Irving's Milk River property. The animal rescue group said some of the dogs had broken bones, gaping wounds and were riddled with parasites. (AARCS/Facebook)

As RCMP in Alberta and Saskatchewan search for the woman at the centre of extreme cases of animal neglect and hoarding — animal rights experts are voicing concerns she may be at it again.

Two years ago, more than 200 emaciated dogs were seized from April Irving's home near Milk River, Alta.

At the time, she had been under a two dog restriction after a similar animal seizure in Saskatchewan. But Alberta authorities were unable to enforce that ban.

Psychologist Randall Lockwood with the American SPCA researches the human psychology of animal abuse and neglect. Here is an edited version of his conversation with the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

Tracking hoarders

Q: Is there such a thing as an animal hoarder?

Absolutely, and animal hoarding is now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a mental illness. It is something we are seeing throughout North America and around the world, actually.

Q: How common is it for an animal hoarder to get in legal trouble in one place, have their animals taken away, then just move to another place and start hoarding animals again?

It's very common. One of the characteristics of the animal hoarder is they have very little insight into the harm they are causing. They feel they are doing nothing wrong. They feel persecuted by legitimate humane groups, animal control, and law enforcement, and often their response is to relocate. I have some hoarders I've been tracking for more than 20 years across many states.

Q: April Irving was referred for a psychiatric assessment at her last court appearance in June. To be clear, is animal hoarding considered a mental illness?

Yes. According to the APA, hoarding in general is a disorder, and we encourage psychological assessment and treatment. That's often what we are seeking in any kind of legal action — we are not necessarily trying to incarcerate hoarders, but hold them accountable for their behaviour and require that they get the help they need.

Some animal experts say it's common for those accused of animal hoarding or animal cruelty to skip town, as they are often in denial about what they are accused of. Pictured here one of the more than 200 dogs seized from April Irving's property in January 2015. (AARCS/CBC)

Beyond stereotypes

Q: Are there certain traits that animal hoarders have in common?

The stereotype of the crazy cat lady is only partially true. Hoarders are more likely to be women, although we certainly see male hoarders as well as couples, though the characteristic of older women seems to be more common. Usually they are above average intelligence. A lot of them are from "helping professions" like teachers, nurses, even doctors and vets.

Q: The condition of animals involved in some of these cases are shocking. How is it possible a person is blind to all that?

In studies done of object hoarders, neuro-physiologically there may be some deficits in how they process sensory information and attach emotional context to that.

I'm often asked, "Can't they smell the urine and feces? Can't they see the dead animals?" On some level, the answer may be no.

Animal hoarders have very little insight into the problems they cause to the point they are in denial of the fact there are dead animals on the premises.

Treatments and solutions

Q: Are they resistant to treatment?

Often when we get court-ordered psychological assessment and treatment, usually they don't show up, or they leave town or leave the state. They feel they have done nothing wrong, it is society that is wrong. All they want to do is take their animals away, and only they can provide the special care they see their animals as needing.

Q: What kind of solutions are there then?

Our first objective is to get the animals out of horrible situations to treat those that can be treated, and also to get the hoarder the help he or she needs in terms of social support services and appropriate housing. It takes a whole community.

Q: Seems like a tough balance between keeping the animals safe and helping a distressed human.

Many communities in the states have hoarding task forces in general and meet regularly to try and plan their responses before they reach that tragic situation of lots of dead or dying animals.

Q: Do you have any success stories?

We do. In New York at any given time we are tracking about 100-125 animal hoarding cases. In the early stages, we are able to get the number of animals down to a manageable level and monitor them, but also get the appropriate social services and mental health services to the individual involved. But it is very labour intensive and does require frequent communication between a lot of agencies.

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener