Animal-control investigators were forced to tear a family apart in February when they entered a West Palm Beach home. A Vietnam War veteran and his wife were living in one house, while their other home nearby was inhabited by their 50 or so cats.
The woman suffered from heightened allergies because of the cats, but neither she nor her husband wanted them removed.
“When we did this … it devastated him,” Capt. David Walesky of Palm Beach County Animal Care and Control said of removing the cats. “He said things like his life is over.”
The case was one of an increased number of hoarding calls in recent years. Walesky is among those who think it’s time for the county to form a task force to tackle the problem. There are about 90 hoarding task forces nationwide, the closest one being in Broward County.
Without one, it’s difficult to address each case properly, Walesky said.
“We took all the cats — he ended up surrendering them — but there’s still another side of that, which is the criminal side. Animal cruelty charges are still pending,” Walesky said.
“Hopefully it could be resolved more tactfully, rather than this giant ka-boom: Your life is dramatically changing in this direction.”
New attention for old condition
Hoarding has received widespread attention recently. It even has a television show dedicated to it — The Learning Channel’s “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” Yet researchers have known about hoarding since the late 1800s, when it was written about in psychiatric literature as “collectors mania.”
This year, it is expected to be recognized as a discrete disorder by the American Psychiatric Association’s top reference book, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which will be released in May. Compulsive hoarding disorder thus far has been defined as a symptom of obsessive compulsive disorder, but new research has cast doubt on the OCD connection.
Christina Bratiotis, author of “The Hoarding Handbook,” began studying hoarding in 2007 when there were only seven hoarding task forces around the country. She said hoarders have a genetic pre-disposition for the behavior: Their mom or dad may have been a hoarder.
Life experiences also play a role, with a common trigger being the feeling of loss. Twelve percent of all hoarders have a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, while 60 percent have a co-occurring diagnosis of a major depressive disorder, Bratiotis said. The feeling of loss can result from losing a loved one, loss of control over a situation or even being a victim of assault.
Animal hoarding is different from object hoarding and has been less researched. Bratiotis stressed that animal hoarders don’t want to hurt their animals. They set out to be caregivers and become overburdened.
Hoarding also can threaten lives, especially when emergency crews such as firefighters can’t get into a house because of stacked items.
“Hoarding is something that crosses all demographics, not just lower-income. It could be a mansion in Boca to a trailer park,” said Capt. Albert Borroto, spokesman for Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. “But from the fire-rescue side of it, there is a life-safety aspect.”
Wish to help launches task force
Adam Leath started Lee County’s task force in 2010. Leath, now the southeast director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, was confronted by a woman who was forced out of her home when it was condemned. Ten years’ worth of trash and debris stood in piles 5 feet tall.
The woman also had two dogs in her home who had to be removed. While trying to get the woman help, no one — neither a human-welfare organization, a code enforcement officer nor animal care and control — claimed hoarding as their issue.
Leath finally found help for the woman in the county’s Department of Human Resources. He also sought mental help for her. Within a few years the woman was back at home, and with her animals.
“It sparked an interest,” Leath said. He remembered thinking, “Gosh, if animal services is willing to take their piece of the pie and we have people such as fire, EMS, mental health services, and we get all the people in the same room together, then each of them can take a piece of the pie.”
Leath said the task force has been successful ever since. “What we found was once people started realizing (the task force) was there, we had hoarders having somewhere they could go,” he said.
In Palm Beach County, representatives from agencies such as Animal Care and Control, the state Department of Children and Families and Palm Beach County Fire Rescue have met at least three times in Broward County to learn about the task force.
“The most success comes from a team-centered approach,” said Carrie Craig, the coordinator for Fire Rescue’s Community Assistance Team.
Also assisting is Mark Odom, who started the Orange County Hoarding Task Force in Southern California.
“Hoarding is a complex, multi-faceted problem,” Odom said. “No single agency or organization has the skills, techniques or resources to fully address the hoarding experience.”
One of the biggest problems that the group faces is funding, but some are hoping the disorder being officially acknowledged will help.
“Mental health programs are severely underfunded,” Craig said. “There’s really no program that address mental health issues. It’s the same ongoing story.”
Palm Beach County lacks formal system
Palm Beach County does not have a protocol for handling hoarding cases. Any cleaning up of the house has to be done voluntarily or, if the situation is dire, the courts are asked to become involvede.
A hoarder is usually discovered when they require medical attention and medical personnel are called to their house. They see the living conditions and notify either Animal Care and Control or code enforcement officers. Sometimes a family member or a friend calls Fire Rescue’s Community Assistance Team or the county’s 211 hotline. But there is no firm system set in place.
Fire Rescue crews in 2012 were called to Janna Howard’s Greenacres home for a medical problem. Crews took her to a local hospital, then notified Animal Care and Control about the dozens of cats and loads of garbage and debris that filled her townhouse.
The townhouse ended up being condemned. The cats were removed and many of them died. Four months later Howard was taken to the Palm Beach County Jail for animal cruelty. Howard and her townhouse quickly made headlines as one of “the biggest hoarding cases” seen in the county.
“When it gets to our level, it’s usually when it’s at its worst, and unfortunately when it’s at its worse is usually when you need to do something in that moment,” Borroto said. “The one thing always left out is mental health.”