My husband and I first noticed the stench of animal urine at our housewarming party in 2008. Our neighbors, two elderly cousins whom I will call Maria and Anne, were the first guests to arrive. We had met them on the sidewalk after we bought a landmarked row house in Queens. Both women were exceedingly kind and said they loved animals, a passion we shared. Maria told us she had six dogs and "many cats" and was active in animal rescue. Maybe Maria's smell was just a little accident?
We soon noticed that Maria never walked her dogs and rarely took out her garbage. She began to stack trash bags on her roof deck, letting her dogs use the remaining space as a toilet. In the summer of 2009, Maria’s air conditioner broke and she started sleeping on her deck, surrounded by trash, her six barking dogs, and their feces.
When we complained, she apologized profusely. She informed us that she didn’t have a sense of smell, and that she suffered from migraines. In long emails, she elaborated on her dogs’ many problems: Donnie was deaf and didn’t hear his own “persistent and high pitched” bark; Christina, the oldest, with the “deepest voice,” suffered from “separation anxiety”; Mamma Mia, “a small, completely blind cocker spaniel sometimes [went] into barking fits around Skye or the cats.” And so on.
Maria repeatedly told us that her animals were the kind that rescues failed to find homes for. She reprimanded us for our lack of compassion. Her pets were her “babies.”
When you have to close your windows when your neighbor opens theirs, when swarms of flies keep you from barbecuing, when animal yelps keep you awake at night, and when you have talked to the neighbor’s only remaining relative to no avail, who will step in to stop the cycle of animal abuse and unsanitary conditions?
Not the City.
The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which handles noise, air, and water complaints, sent letters to Maria threatening to send an inspector. The inspector never came. We sent photographs of Maria’s deck to the Department of Health (DOH) but never heard back.
We then sent our documentation to city council member Jimmy Van Bramer. His office put in a couple calls to the DEP and the DOH, with no results. His community liaison told us that it preferred not to get involved in “residential conflicts.” He emailed, “I googled a couple of ‘no kill’ dog shelters that [Maria] may want to contact… Maybe you could give her the information...”
Considering that one quarter of all animal hoarding cases can be traced back to no-kill shelters and their foster homes, this seemed like an ironic gesture. “The no-kill proponents are actually enabling hoarders,” said PETA’s Animal Care and Control Specialist Teresa Chagrin. “Just [last month] there were more than 800 animals—that we know of—that have been seized from rescues. Animal shelters are under intense pressure to not euthanize and to release animals to basically anyone who will take them.”
Interior of an apartment of an animal hoarder following an initial cleaning (Sabine Heinlein / Gothamist)
Animal hoarding is mostly hidden from the public eye. It is not necessarily the number of animals that make a person a hoarder, but rather the owner’s inability to provide a healthy physical and emotional environment for them and herself.
“A client’s physical presentation—or her odor—is often what tips things off,” said Mark Gaynor, a psychotherapist who specializes in animal hoarding and has acted as a consultant to Animal Planet’s "Confessions: Animal Hoarding."
Gaynor explained to me that the disorder often presents itself as a secondary—or tertiary—mental health issue. Someone might come to his practice with work-related or relationship conflicts and only after careful assessment does he find out about the animal hoarding. Gaynor noted that there are certain characteristics that most animal hoarders share. “The majority are single women over the age of 60 who have had a series of traumas in their lives. They are not able to make healthy relationships with the world around them and probably had some earlier life experiences in which they were highly rewarded by animals. Animals are soothing to them.”
While animal hoarding has recently been added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), Gaynor lamented the lack of available research on the topic. He said animal hoarders might suffer from anxiety, depression, attachment disorder, delusions, OCD, or a combination of all five. It is not uncommon that they are pathological liars who lack the moral reasoning to take responsibility and to realize that what they are doing is cruel.
Finally, in the summer of 2010, we told Maria that we would call our lawyer. That seemed to do the trick. She agreed to give up all of her dogs but one—Christina, the 13-year-old chronic barker. Still, it seemed like progress. The barking continued for several months, then it stopped when Christina died.
Several months ago we heard barking again. We learned from Anne that Maria had secretly bought three new dogs at a pet store and online from a breeder. Again, she wasn’t walking them. Again, we couldn’t leave our windows open and called 311.
Then Maria rang our doorbell, crying. Her plumbers refused to resolve an emergency because of the smell and the piles of feces in her home. My husband and I decided to reach out to the ASPCA, the DOH, as well as Adult Protective Services (APS). APS was quick to respond, assigning the Jewish Association Serving the Aging (JASA) to check in. A caseworker visited the next day. An acquaintance put us in touch with Marina Mitchell, the Cruelty Intervention Advocacy Coordinator at the ASPCA. Mitchell assigned a caseworker.
A few days later Anne’s kitchen ceiling collapsed. According to Maria, one of her cats had turned on the faucet in her upstairs apartment, causing a flood. We again contacted Jimmy Van Bramer’s office. His new community liaison warned me that agencies are hesitant to help unless there are “Collyer brothers” conditions. Resources have to be spent wisely, he said, when we asked whether the FDNY could make sure that there wasn’t a fire hazard.
Pressured by her cousin and her plumbers, Maria arranged for a cleaning agency to remove some of the trash, the floor boards and part of the walls in the living room that were soaked through with urine and feces. I was then given access to her apartment so a contractor I had arranged could give her an estimate for putting down tiles in the living room (tiles, Maria said, would allow her to keep her apartment clean).
Maria’s bedroom was inaccessible because trash piled up to the ceiling. An emaciated cat sat on a mountain of trash bags in the living room. Numerous other cats hid behind trash bags. Cat food covered the floor and the litter boxes were brimming. The attic door was blocked by a bag of feces covered in mold. It was the kind of smell one never forgets. As if this wasn’t sad enough, taped on her living room walls were some of our complaint letters. My contractor said he was not willing to work under such conditions.
After the joint visit of the ASPCA and JASA, ASPCA’s caseworker promised that she would return the next week to trap the nine feral cats Maria kept in her apartment. (Maria insisted on keeping her three house cats and her three new dogs.) JASA’s caseworker admitted in an email that “everyone has agreed that it [was] not a sanitary environment for anyone, including pets.” Yet the next two weeks passed and nothing happened. We left messages for and sent emails to Marina Mitchell and the caseworker but never heard back. Eventually Maria received a call saying that the ASPCA couldn’t take the cats because their no-kill shelter was full.
It’s worth noting that the ASPCA has quasi-governmental authority to take away animals that have been severely neglected or abused. A recent New York Times article points out, however, that “the actual number of cruelty arrests by the division was extremely low, around 103 a year against 50,000 tips.” Randy Lockwood, the Senior Vice President for Anti-Cruelty Initiatives and Legislative Services for the ASPCA who has co-authored several articles on animal hoarding, did not respond to a request to be interviewed.
Interior of an apartment of an animal hoarder following an initial cleaning—note the holes cut into the door for cats (Sabine Heinlein / Gothamist)
Dr. Martha Smith-Blackmore, Vice President of Animal Welfare of the Animal Rescue League and a professor of veterinary forensics at Tufts University, noted that organizations almost always lack sufficient funding to intervene comprehensively. One of the biggest obstacles in animal cruelty and neglect cases is that when an animal is seized it becomes evidence. “That evidence has to be maintained until the legal case has run its course,” she explains. This makes the situation far more expensive than the initial intervention.
After a psychiatrist visited Maria in her home, she was declared “mentally competent” and the case was dropped. In an email, Connie Ress, a spokesperson of APS, admits that JASA declines services to roughly 60 percent of clients that are referred to the agency because of the need to conserve resources for those cases in which there is “no one willing and able” to assist them. Of course we were assisting Maria, but we also needed JASA’s help.
It was a letter from the DOH, four years after we first alerted the agency to the issue, that set things in motion. Facing the possibility of a hefty fine, Maria agreed to surrender her feral cats to Animal Care and Control (AC&C).
Unfortunately, simply taking away the hoarded animals is a temporary solution. PETA’s Teresa Chagrin, ARL’s Martha Smith-Blackmore, and psychotherapist Mark Gaynor all pointed out that the recidivism rate of animal hoarders who don’t receive treatment is close to 100 percent. Gaynor explained that successful therapeutic treatment “helps the hoarder identify the significance of her behavior, take ownership of the behavior and enable her to find other means to meet the needs of human connection.”
Considering the lack of response from city agencies, where does a New Yorker with an animal hoarding issue turn to? Her neighbors. After receiving yet another overwhelmed call from Maria saying that she was unable to catch her feral cats, my husband and I borrowed traps from a friend. We spent our weekend in a sweltering house filled with trash and feces, driving cats with open sores, severely matted fur and obvious eye infections, to the AC&C, which accepted the cats as abuse cases.
We check in with Maria frequently, encourage her to take out her trash, seek counseling, and take out her dogs. In one of our most recent conversations, she said that she is starting to realize her level of denial.
“Responding to animal hoarding is a community response,” Smith-Blackmore said, adding that it’s instrumental to get a number of individuals and agencies involved. “The biggest mistake is made by communities that tolerate the presence of animal hoarders in their community because they don’t recognize how absolutely horrific the conditions and the suffering can be for the individual animals,” Smith-Blackmore said. “Wave the flags. Be the voice of the animals who have none. Be persistent. The first call to Animal Control might not get [you] any help whatsoever.”
Sabine Heinlein is a freelance journalist and the author of Among Murderers: Life After Prison (University of California Press, 2013). She is donating her fee for this article to the Animal Legal Defense Fund.