From: Animal People January/February 1999

Animals in bondage: the hoarding mind

LYLES, Tenn.; ANAMOSA, Iowa; SALT LAKE CITY, Utah--Near Lyles, Tennessee, the shelterless Hickman County Humane Society just before Christmas 1998 seized 299 dogs, 38 horses, and various cats from an alleged puppy mill reportedly owned by one Patricia Adkisson.

The site was littered, rescuers said, with the remains of dead dogs.

On January 1, 1999, hoping to keep a developing neglect case from becoming self-perpetuating, Florida Humane Society volunteers cleaned the home of widower Terry Ruppel, 70, of Lighthouse Point, who surrendered 37 cats after neighbors complained about filth and stench. Ruppel and his wife of 47 years exhausted their savings trying to fix up an old house, Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel staff writer Robert George explained. Then Ruppel had a stroke, skin cancer, and kidney cancer, and in August 1998 his wife died of a sudden heart attack.

"Ruppel sold his truck so he could fly her home to Illinois for a funeral among family," George reported. "Then he retreated into his home and turned to his cats to soothe the loneliness that settled upon him. He let them climb in his bed so they could purr him to sleep. They crawled over him as he sat, hour after hour, in front of the television. He was too tired to clean up after them. 'I didn't have the gumption,' Ruppel said."

Because Ruppel accepted help and gave up the animals, observers think he may keep a pledge to avoid repeating the situation.

District judge L. Vern Robinson of Jones County, Iowa, on December 4, 1998 ordered the immediate slaughter of 315 starving pigs who were seized from Piggy Bar Farms, near Wyoming, Iowa, on October 30. Owner Daryl Larson, 46, of Delmar, Iowa, was previously in trouble for starving as many as 3,000 pigs in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1997 at other locations in both Iowa and Missouri. Fined $16,311 for the 1995 Missouri case, Larson in February 1998 sought to avoid payment by declaring bankruptcy. This time Larson was charged only with misdemeanor neglect, carrying a maximum penalty of a year in jail and a fine of $1,500.

The Arizona Humane Society in mid-November euthanized 160 cats and filed 201 misdemeanor cruelty counts against Charlotte Brees, 56, who ran the Arizona Cat Rescue Association, incorporated in 1984, from her home. Hired two weeks earlier, cleaning person Rosalie Thurston reportedly called humane authorities upon becoming aware that the mess she confronted was not just the result of a short-term crisis.

Robert Mock, of Junglesong Cattery in Rochester, Washington, in a history of the short-legged Munchkin variant of the ocelot-marked "ocicat," credits Laurie Bobskill of West Springfield, Massachusetts, as one of the "notable breeders" who established Munchkins on the show circuit.

But Bobskill, 47, a longtime reporter for the Springfield Union-News, and single parent of a 17-year-old son, turned from breeding to cat rescue circa 1992. She called ANIMAL PEOPLE occasionally to request information about cat-related matters, including how to tell animal hoarders from rescuers, and sometimes distributed free samples of ANIMAL PEOPLE at cat shows.

"We thought of her as a reporter who was animal-friendly and wanted to help cats," said Massachusetts SPCA vice president Carter Luke. In July 1996, however, Bobskill surrendered 126 cats to the MSPCA and cleaned her home at town request. The incident was not publicized. Then, on October 23, 1998, police and the Baystate Gas Company came to shut off Bobskill's gas line due to unpaid bills. Finding "feces piled against the doorway," wrote Bobskill's Union-News colleague Natasha Gural, the police called the MSPCA and city health director Albert Laboranti, who placarded the site as unfit for habitation. The MSPCA took out 58 live cats, three dead cats, and a dog.

ANIMAL PEOPLE learned of the incidents when Bobskill called on November 12, 1998, to allege MSPCA persecution.

In Walpole, Massachusetts, Edmund Burke, 48, was on December 10 charged with fatally stabbing Irene Kennedy, 75, nine days earlier in a public park. Police said a bite mark on Kennedy's body matched dental impressions from Burke, who pleaded innocent. Fire chief Ken Erickson declared the debris-strewn Burke home a fire hazard. Burke's mother, Annette Burke, 88, was removed to a motel. Animal control officer John Spillane took custody of 25 cats.

From September 19 through mid-October, the Salt Lake Tribune and the rival Deseret News carried daily updates on the plight of 21-month-old David Fink, allegedly kidnapped from the Primary Children's Medical Center in Salt Lake City by his father and mother, purported religious fanatics Christopher and Kyndra Fink, both 23.

Hospitalized for malnutrition by Kyndra Fink's family, David Fink reportedly weighed just 16 pounds. Police said he had apparently endured months on a diet of lettuce and watermelon juice, intended to keep him "pure." He was down to 15 pounds when the Finks surrendered in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana, after 16 days of flight.

Kyndra Fink, who gave birth to another son while dodging the law, said she herself hadn't eaten in several days. The Finks were found, wrote Ray Rivera of the Salt Lake Tribune, when customers at both a McDonald's restaurant and a roadside saloon recognized Christopher Fink from newspaper photos as he ate a hamburger and fries, then "quaffed a few cold ones" before attempting to hitchhike back to the Fink camp with a sack of wheat flour.


Alleged puppy miller, widower, farmer, rescuer, show breeder/rescuer, alleged real-life Norman Bates, or alleged messianic survivalist, the alleged perpetrators in all seven pending cases appear to have in common that they exemplify traits which seem to be shared by most persons who are accused of animal hoarding, according to ANIMAL PEOPLE findings in an analysis of media reports on 688 recent U.S. alleged hoarding cases, involving 661 individuals.

The commonalities are not unique to animal hoarders, however. They also seem to be shared by others who hoard or neglect either individual nonhuman animals or dependent humans, or just obsessively gather trash. The term "animal hoarder" is a recent modification of the more familiar term "animal collector." Noticing that people who hoard animals tend to share quirks with trash hoarders, Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy director Gary Patronak recommends that "animal hoarder" be used instead of "animal collector" to help distinguish the hoarding pathology from the often equally obsessive but harmless quests of people who merely collect objects as a hobby, and/or have many healthy pets.

Since well before Charles Dickens created Scrooge, the archetypal Victorian miser, artists and writers have described the hoarding syndrome. Hoarders stereotypically fear poverty. Many of note in recent years grew up in dire want, during the Great Depression or in war-ravaged foreign nations --or, if well-off, were terrified by what they saw of deprivation from a distance.

Animal hoarders, like the haunted Scrooge, suffer an obsessive fear of death, Perdue University professor of animal ecology Alan Beck and colleague Dooley Worth hypothesized in a 1981 study of 31 cases handled by the American SPCA and the New York City Bureau of Animal Affairs.

Beck and Worth found that 23 of the 34 people involved in these cases were female, and 24 were unmarried. Most began acquiring unusual numbers of pets after leaving their parents' home at a normal age, in their teens or twenties.

ANIMAL PEOPLE found that females were the alleged perpetrators of 450 incidents (59%), and males of 338 (41%). Responsibility was shared between genders in exactly 100 cases (15%). Nearly two-thirds of the alleged perpetrators lived alone:

Lifestyles of alleged animal hoarders

F Norm M Norm
Living alone 62% 14% 58% 10%
With spouse 15% 52% 25% 56%
With relatives 24% 28% 17% 25%

The ANIMAL PEOPLE data also found that male hoarders are almost twice as likely as women to get into trouble for hoarding animals early in life:

Ages of alleged animal hoarders

Female Male
Under 30 8% 15%
30 to 39 12% 14%
40 to 49 27% 27%
50 to 59 26% 16%
60 to 69 15% 16%
70 and up 16% 12%

But the different pretexts that alleged hoarders have for keeping animals must be considered. ANIMAL PEOPLE found that among 158 alleged hoarders (24%) who were identified as either pet breeders or former breeders, 55% were female.

Among 156 alleged hoarders (also 24%) who claimed to be animal rescuers, 77% were female.

By contrast, gender was evenly divided among 24 alleged hoarders who owned pet stores (4%), while among 125 alleged hoarders (19%) who claimed to be farmers, 65% were male.

Of the 307 alleged hoarders who kept animals for an economic pretext, 173 (55%) were male.

Since about 80% of all farmers are male, females might still appear disproportionately likely to hoard.

But the differing age skews by gender are also suggestive of the earlier average male age of death, especially among single people and depressive personalities.

It may be that fewer men are caught hoarding animals after age 50 only because fewer of those who might do so are still alive.

One might also speculate that women are better animal caretakers at most ages, tending to falter later, perhaps coinciding with the onset of physical and emotional stresses which afflict men sooner.

Finally, many female farmer/hoarders were either widows or daughters of deceased or incapacitated male farmers. Some defended themselves against allegations of neglect by asserting that they did their best, but were unable to keep up with heavy chores.

Cats and dogs

Beck and Worth found that hoarders tended to have either many cats or many dogs, with only a few of the other. The average numbers of the most numerous species were 34 cats or 20 dogs. But they only studied urban hoarders, and did not look at people who purportedly kept animals to make money.

ANIMAL PEOPLE found 620 cases in which an animal count was available.

Dogs were the most-hoarded species: 319 people (48%) kept an average of 54 apiece. Cats turned up in 219 cases (33%), involving an average of 48 apiece.

The ratios of dog and cat owners are somewhat comparable to the U.S. norms, in that 53% of pet-owning households keep dogs, according to American Veterinary Medical Association data, while 46% keep cats--but the mean number of dogs per dog-owning household is 1.7, and the mean number of cats per cat-owning household is 2.2.

Equines were hoarded in 125 cases (19%), involving an average of 19 apiece. Just 4% of pet-owning households keep equines. The mean number of equines per household that owns any is 2.7.

As dogs, cats, and horses all are kept chiefly as companions, one may infer that how often hoarders get into trouble with each reflects the species' difficulty of care. It is easier to keep or neglect lots of cats without attracting notice than to keep or neglect lots of dogs, and easier to keep or neglect lots of dogs than to keep or neglect horses, who tend to live outside, more-or-less in public view.

Likewise, it is easier to hoard small dogs than big dogs--as ANIMAL PEOPLE reported in November 1993. Reviewing 49 cases, we found that 16 people caught neglecting large dogs had an average of just 17 apiece, but 33 people caught neglecting small dogs had an average of 49. Chihuahua hoarders averaged 59; poodle hoarders averaged 72.

Small dogs, we theorized, are more likely to be kept indoors; are more vulnerable to neglect without physical risk to the abuser; some hoarders seem to have a psychological need for animals they call their "babies"; and market demand is greater for small puppies.

Other quantifiable species found in our sample of 688 hoarding cases were bovines, kept by 41 alleged perpetrators (7%), who had an average of 63 apiece, and pigs, kept by 20 alleged perpetrators (3%), who had an average of 181 each.

The average numbers of cattle and pigs parallel the typical populations on family farms circa 1960, and may reflect the declining viability of small-scale husbandry.

Bring out your dead

Beck and Worth discovered that the animal hoarders in their study tended to become socially isolated because their animals interfered with social relations. But they usually coped with their situations for many years before getting into trouble. When they did get into trouble, it often involved hoarding dead animals. Two of their study subjects were even caught hoarding human corpses.

This syndrome too was known to literature. William Faulkner described it in his 1930 short story "A Rose For Emily," in which a recently deceased spinster of considerable inherited social stature is found to have slept for half a century with the remains of an unfaithful suitor she poisoned in her youth.

Among the 661 alleged hoarders, 115 (17%) kept dead animals. But they didn't just keep nonhuman animals, either dead or alive. Twenty-eight alleged hoarders (4%), including about a third of the women under age 40, kept a total of 44 children in approximately the same conditions as the animals in their custody--often caged, starved, in filth, suffering from untreated illness and injury. Eleven alleged hoarders (2%) kept a total of 12 senior citizens in such conditions. The human victim was in nine cases a parent.

One alleged male hoarder, who was Caucasian, kept his Japanese-speaking wife locked in a trailer with seven live cats, various dead cats, and an accumulation of garbage. She reportedly did not wish to press charges.

Except for the presence of animals, ANIMAL PEOPLE noted no quantifiable difference between these cases and others in which parents confined and starved children, or adult children confined and starved parents.

Likewise, except for the numbers of animals involved, ANIMAL PEOPLE noted little reported behavioral difference between animal hoarders and individuals who confined and starved one animal at a time. Social isolation, troubled lives, and obsessive control-seeking appear to be constants--along with persistent failure by observers to recognize the combination of control and neglect as the passive-aggressive form of mayhem.


Faulkner also described the enabling syndrome, through which family, friends, and even whole communities indirectly encourage a hoarder to persist in the behavior, rather than closely examine an uncomfortable situation: when the spinster Emily's house stank, soon after the suitor disappeared, the town council attributed the odor to hot weather and animals, and a committee surreptitiously spread lime around the foundation.

Samantha Mullen, formerly with the New York State Humane Association, now with HSUS, began recording characteristics of animal hoarders during almost a decade of trying to shut down the Animals Farm Home, at Ellenville, along with several other notorious upstate New York self-described "no-kill shelters"--not to be confused with no-kill shelters which adhere to accepted standards for humane animal care and fiscal accountability.

The Animals Farm Home was run by Justin McCarthy, age 68 in 1988, when repeated NYSHA raids finally did close it. Even after early closure attempts, McCarthy was described by Newsweek in 1984 as "St. Francis of the Catskills," and by Reader's Digest in 1986 as "a real-life Dr. Doolittle."

McCarthy, reported the New York Times files, had actually been convicted of six armed robberies, and later did public relations work for Cubans opposed to Fidel Castro. He allegedly took in more than 1,000 dogs, 70 cats, and various other animals between 1981 and 1987, plus $500,000 in cash--but the money apparently vanished while most of the animals starved.

Of approximately 475 animals Mullen and colleagues reportedly discovered amid the remains of perhaps 200 more at the Animals Farm Home in a November 1987 raid, about 175 were euthanized at the scene.

Mullen in February 1990 mailed to numerous animal care agencies a summary of her observations about hoarders. "Offers of help, unless in the form of monetary gifts, are generally rebuffed," Mullen wrote, as a hoarder resists any loss of control over the animals he or she possesses.

City of Houston veterinarian Karen Kemper in 1991 published a list of 10 parallels of behavior between "animal addicts," as Kemper called them, and substance abusers:
* Preoccupation with the addiction.
* Repetition of the addictive behavior.
* Neglect of self and surroundings.
* Alibis for behavior.
* Claims of persecution.
* Presence of enablers.
* Denial that addiction exists.
* Isolation from society, except for enablers and fellow addicts.
* Abuse of animals through neglect.
* Institutionalized at least once; found sane.

ANIMAL PEOPLE found that to the extent Kemper's parallels are quantifiable, they stand up--not least because many animal hoarders are substance abusers.

Further, as with alcoholics, society itself may be the prime enabler. ANIMAL PEOPLE found that of the 688 cases we examined, only 178 (28%) were known to have resulted in convictions of any kind. Yet 245 of the 661 alleged offenders (37%) were previously convicted of similar offences.

The ANIMAL PEOPLE cruelty sentencing log, kept since 1991, records details of the punishment for 138 of the 178 known convictions. The averages show rough proportionality where pets are involved, but farmers still tend to escape lightly, as did most "rescuers" until recent years:

Sentencing norms, animal neglect

Cases Jail days Susp. days Fine Repay Srvc hrs Pbtn. days
Starving herds of farm animals
12 40 46 $ 451 $ 546 79 91
Pet shop, groomer, kennel
32 80 80 $1,089 $1,884 38 958
Other dog/cat hoarders
41 91 125 $ 919 $2,113 51 307
Single dog/cat neglect cases
52 19 10 $ 272 $ 101 25 242

Penalties for overt violence to animals are also light, relative to those for harming humans, but are notably heavier since prosecutors and judges began to recognize in the early 1990s that as Arnold Arluke of Northeastern University and Carter Luke of the MSPCA confirmed in August 1997, approximately 70% of violent animal abusers commit other crimes within 10 years, and 38% commit further violent crimes.

Animal killers and torturers sentenced between May 1996 and May 1998, according to the ANIMAL PEOPLE log, drew an average of 228 days for crimes against dogs, 205 days for crimes against horses, and 108 days for crimes against cats.

The much lighter punishment of violent crimes against cats is paradoxical, since Cat Abuse and Torture Syndrome is a known strong predictor of violence toward women. However, much as the punishment of rapists tends to depend upon the status of their victims, with assaults on prostitutes and unmarried women least likely to be prosecuted, the punishment of violent cat abusers tends to depend upon whether the victims are verifiably someone else's property.

Violence is an overt control mechanism. As a display, it terrifies society as well as the victims. Only recently, however, has violent behavior toward either humans or animals been recognized as an illegitimate bid for dominance by people, usually male, who either lack or reject use of the social skills required to gain or keep status in more acceptable ways. An appropriate societal response is still just evolving.

Confinement and neglect are covert. They are weapons of repressed rage, wielded from behind shields of isolation and depression which may help even the abuser to avoid recognition of the aggression, directed as it usually is against a helpless innocent victim.

As with overt violence, the covert abuser may profess to love the victim. In any event, the victim is seen as both a physical and emotional burden, perhaps identified with a lost or absent partner or parent. Yet the abuser's relationship with the victim is also central to the abuser's self-identity, whether as pet breeder, rescuer, farmer, rider, spouse, parent, or child.

Substance abuse is now widely recognized as a form of slow suicide. Hoarding animals or people has a suicidal aspect too, with a surrogate victim. Neglecting the victim to death is a way of dumping both a burden and a source of self-hatred without admitting responsibility: corpses need no further care.

Yet the lives of the hoarders go on, still otherwise out of control, still unwilling to take responsibility for failure to fulfill obligations. More animals may be hoarded, or more helpless people. Those who can control little else may merely hoard the dead.

--Merritt Clifton


After the January/February 1999 edition of ANIMAL PEOPLE went to press, Edmund Burke was cleared of involvement in the Irene Kennedy murder. Reported T. Trent Gegax in the June 14, 1999 edition of Newsweek, "Burke is still embarrassed to admit that he gets so attached to his cats that he is reluctant to bury them. 'I was heartbroken and I kept putting it off,' he says. 'Nobody was supposed to know--it was just between me and the cats," the remains of five of whom were discovered in Burke's refrigerator.