Hoarders : Stepping Out of Your TV Set Into Your Local Shelter

Animal hoarding was a dirty secret until hoarders appeared on our TV screens and showed how they are compelled to collect so many dogs, cats or parrots that the animals end up in cages only inches bigger than their own bodies. For life.

Imagine what it must be like for these animals to be stuck in a see-through box, sitting in their own filth, unable to take a step, never comfortable, being yelled at to "be quiet" or being ignored because their captors are so accustomed to hearing them crying, whining and working away at the cage bars?

Now the cat's out of the bag, and perhaps more cats will be out of hoarders' hands.

But, like scary viruses, hoarders have morphed into something even more insidious. They are trying to take over our shelters.

One hundred years ago, New Yorkers stopped stray dogs from being drowned in the Hudson. Forty years ago, humane societies stopped municipalities from killing unwanted dogs and cats by using hot, unfiltered truck exhaust fumes, causing the animals to choke to death.

Today, while some primitive pounds remain, great strides in humane sheltering standards have been made. There are places where behaviorists work to reduce abandoned animals' separation anxiety, groomers cut away matted hair to make animals comfortable and adoptable and walkers are employed to ensure that no cage paralysis sets in. There are municipal shelters that cope with tens of thousands of animals a year yet still provide a comfortable, caring environment.

But "institutional hoarders" now threaten to turn back the clock on hard-won reforms by bullying authorities into adopting magical sounding "no kill" policies that do animals no favors. Inside such "hoarding facilities," many of which eventually end up in the news, raided by law enforcement, the dogs and cats, sick and healthy, old and young, face overcrowding and neglect that reduces them to withdrawn and pathetic wrecks.

In well-run shelters, managers know that you cannot store animals like oranges. Tough decisions must be made about who remains on the adoption floor and who goes to sleep forever, for, as long as people fail to spay and neuter, acquire and dispose of animals casually, and buy from breeders and pet shops instead of adopting, there will be far more dogs and cats than there are homes. Millions more.

Many hoarding facilities leave the dirty work to others, refusing to accept sick, aged, "unadoptable" animals. They reduce operational hours to prevent drop-offs and adopt animals into bad homes, all so as to avoid euthanasia. Crowding means that diseases flourish, causing misery and, often, ironically, mass destruction of all animals, even those who entered the facility in good health.

In New Jersey recently, a "no kill" group that had taken over one shelter left. Their successors described the conditions as "abysmal, horrendous, shocking, horrifying .... It's difficult to put into words what it's like to see 99 dogs crammed into a facility built to comfortably house only 50. What it's like to witness 274 cats in a building meant for only 80. Perhaps the best description is a word we in this field know only so well: HOARDER.

"The facility is disgusting .... Cats come in healthy, get sick and die. Kittens drop dead in their cages every day .... Dogs live in cramped cages, spend 23 1/2 hours in cages where they can't stand up or turn around, can't stretch their limbs, where they can't get away from their own filth. Their noses are rubbed raw and bloody and many have split pads from getting their feet caught in the wire pop-up cages meant for cats. And this place calls itself a no-kill shelter."

Giving an animal a quiet, painless and peaceful death is a sad indictment of our throwaway society, but life in a cramped, filthy cage is not a "rescue."

Last month in Virginia, PETA ran an ad pleading for homes for 28 cats. Three people responded. In the same area, PETA has spayed or neutered more than 63,000 dogs and cats. Birth prevention never completely staunches the flow of unwanted animals, but "fix" one dog or cat and you save countless more animals from needing homes.

Municipalities need to stand firm. Time and money must go into mandatory spaying/neutering and guardianship education, not into warehousing animals. The "no kill" movement is harmful to humane sheltering.

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.