Helping Hoarders: Rescuers, Therapists Ponder Options

Last week a court in Humboldt County, Calif., sentenced Elsie Smith, 69, to three years of probation for animal neglect. Authorities seized 40 horses from her property on April 1. Although Smith is forbidden to own horses during her probation, one of the rescuers who helped look after the seized herd said she's worried about what Smith will do in the future.

"Back in 2003 county animal control helped her reduce her herd, so she has a record of hoarding," said Sara Isaacson, president of the Heart of the Redwoods Horse Rescue in Cutten, Calif. "You know she's going to own horses again someday."

Isaacson's fears are well-founded, according to Kenneth Shapiro, PhD, executive director of the Animals and Society Institute, a Michigan-based organization that studies the link between violence to humans and animal cruelty. He defines hoarders as people who acquire large numbers of animals, then find themselves hard-pressed to care for them.

"Hoarders are typically women age 45 and older who have good intentions," he said. "But at some point their resources can't keep up with the number of animals in their care."

Shapiro said there are psychological components at play as well. Over time, hoarders become obsessive and compulsive regarding their animals, and they develop attachments that make surrendering them unthinkable.

"These people really believe they are the only people on earth who can save these horses." -- Jerry Finch, Habitat for Horses president
He said that although the phenomenon is common, there are few treatment options available.

"First, there is no clear protocol," Shapiro said. "Secondly, they don't want to be treated because they don't believe they're doing anything wrong."

As a result, the relapse rate among hoarders is high, even when they receive counseling.

Habitat for Horses rescue President Jerry Finch has investigated hoarding cases in Texas. He said he has found that animal cruelty laws offer no provisions to monitor hoarders over the long term.

"So, there is nothing stopping them from starting all over again either locally or in another state," he said. "Somebody has to be monitoring them all the time."

Finch would like to see all 50 states adopt uniform penalties specific to hoarding to their animal cruelty codes. Shapiro wants to help law enforcement officials track hoarders by adding animal cruelty statistics into the national crime statistics database.

Meanwhile, Finch said it's unlikely horse-hoarding incidents will decline.

"These people really believe they are the only people on earth who can save these horses."

About the Author

Pat Raia

Pat Raia is a veteran journalist who enjoys covering equine welfare, industry, and news. In her spare time, she enjoys riding her Tennessee Walking Horse, Sonny.

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