Animals Are Not Collectables

Animal hoarding cases are a serious matter; one small town in Iowa discovered just that.

Her new name is Lucky Penny and that’s probably exactly how she feels to finally be in a loving home. Formerly named Karma, a bloodhound that was severely injured by attacks from other dogs in an animal hoarding case, has found a family with the very man who rescued her, Warren County Sheriff Brian Vos. Vos and a team of officers removed Lucky Penny and 18 other live dogs from various properties belonging to Lindsey Morrow.

When Sheriff Vos found his Lucky Penny she was in hypovolemic shock due to hypothermia and had extensive injuries. Lucky Penny suffered sepsis from the attacks by other dogs that were in the trailer she was being housed. She lost an ear due to the damage and was severely underweight. Her fur was thick, matted and dirty. Her face hung sadly and her expression was one of fear, pain and uncertainty. Lucky Penny was in veterinary care for four weeks before she was ready to be adopted.

When her adoption day finally arrived, the Animal Rescue League of Iowa (ARL) shared a post about the heart-warming occasion. “Sheriff Vos hasn’t been able to get Karma (Lucky Penny) out of his mind since that day, and yesterday, she was cleared for adoption. So today, they meet again,” they wrote. “We are happy to announce that she will be going home with the very person who saved her life.”   

What is Animal Hoarding? 

According to the ASPCA, in the United States a quarter of a million animals fall victim to cases of hoarding. Animals “collected” by hoarders range in species from cats and dogs to reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. But many people don’t know what animal hoarding looks like. Tuft University explains it like this: First, the person will have more than the typical number of companion animals. Second, they will have an inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness, and death. Lastly, the individual in question is in a state of denial of the inability to provide minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the house, and any other people living in it.

In animal hoarding cases it is common to find up to several hundred animals in various states of neglect. It is also common to find collections of other junk and garbage in the home, as well as many layers of feces. Dogs and cats have been found kept in cages, crates, hutches and even kitchen cabinets. In many instances, hoarders will even be reluctant to get rid of animals that have died.

Scott Wilson, the Animal Welfare Intervention Coordinator with the ARL, told me that, “A lot of the time you find that hoarders tend to fixate on the animals and won’t burry the dead ones.” Dead animals are frequently found in the freezer or refrigerator, or even lying around the house. Hoarders feel that they “love” their animals, but they are unable to see that they are not caring for them responsibly.

Why Do People Hoard?

Animal hoarding shares some of the same characteristics exhibited by hoarders of inanimate objects. Object hoarding has a strong association with a variety of mental health issues, including Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Animal hoarding, however, has some important differences in comparison to OCD related hoarding. Animal hoarding does not seem to share the same array of repetitive compulsive behaviors, and animal hoarders have a greater impairment of insight, potentially reaching delusional levels in comparison to OCD patients.

Hoarding is actually now classified in the DSM-5 as a distinct identity: hoarding disorder, under the category, “Obsessive Compulsive and Related Disorders.” Wilson talked to me about how it’s good that hoarding is being recognized as a separate entity, “The treatment methods and the actions you need to take with a hoarder are different then the normal obsessive compulsive behaviors.”

Gary Patronek, director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University, has done a considerable amount of research into the psychology behind hoarding. “Perhaps the most prominent feature of these individuals is that pets (and other possessions) become central to the hoarder’s core identity,” he writes in Municipal Lawyer magazine. “The hoarder develops a strong need for control, and just the thought of losing an animal can produce an intense grief-like reaction.”

One recurring theme seen among animal hoarders is a history of neglect or loss in their childhood. To put plainly, they attempt to fill their lives with the consistent love they feel they were (or are) lacking. The belief that they are on a mission to save animals is another common characteristic of animal hoarders.

The SandyVille Case

In February of 2017 the Warren County Sheriffs department in Iowa discovered three deceased dog’s bodies in various stages of decay, along with 19 neglected dogs from various properties in SandyVille, all belonging to Morrow.

“I was involved from the get go,” Wilson said. “We [the ARL] coordinated with the Warren County Sheriffs department and met a deputy out there [the property]. We swept the first property and found the two deceased dogs.”

Warren County continued the investigation and soon called Wilson back out to SandyVille, “The next day they found three locations with 19 live dogs and one more deceased. We assisted them with getting the dogs off the properties and into our care,” Wilson said.

Once the dogs were safe within the ARL’s care, the Warren County filed a petition for a dispositional hearing. This is a provision under state code where, rather than hold the animals for months and months pending a criminal hearing, it’s a civil hearing, where if the judge finds sufficient evidence that the dogs (or other animals) are being neglected, the judge can award them to either the local shelter or the local law enforcement division.

“We had a dispositional hearing, the judge did award all the animals to the Warren County Sheriffs office, who then signed them over to us,” Wilson said. Morrow has since been charged with five counts of animal torture and 22 counts of animal neglect, as well as theft, fraud and ongoing criminal conduct.

On The Road To Better Lives  

Once the dogs were officially placed with the ARL, the staff began work to get them on the road to recovery—both mentally and physically. “We’ve been doing behavior work with some of the dogs. There were a few that weren’t in hideous shape, so it only took a little bit of work to get them ready for adoption,” Wilson said.

Other dogs, including Lucky Penny, had to have much more serious veterinary work done. “I know one dog is still having some work done on it’s knees, they had to do some surgery,” said Wilson. Most of the dogs have already been adopted into loving homes, like Lucky Penny. Others still need a little more TLC from the ARL staff to get them ready for their forever homes.

“We’re committed to getting all the dogs into new homes. They’ve been through enough as it is and they deserve something better,” said Wilson. 

Not Just the ‘Crazy Cat Lady’

One of the most important things when it comes to animal hoarding is the help of others to prevent it. Towards the end of my interview with Wilson I asked him if there was anything else I should know about animal hoarding that I hadn’t asked about. “A lot of these hoarding situations could have been stopped when the person has 10 or 15 animals,” he said. Wilson continued to say how it’s easy for people to say, “Oh it’s just the crazy cat lady down the street, she’s not bothering anybody,” and then suddenly it becomes a case with 100 to 175 animals.

“It is so much easier to fix the problem before it becomes a crisis,” Wilson said. “People need to be willing to step forward and say there’s a problem.” The ARL’s website also reiterates this idea, saying when you see a neglected or abused animal, take action. Don’t hesitate to help the helpless. You may be the only chance an animal has to end suffering.

There isn’t a lot done to psychologically help these hoarders, therefore, animal hoarding has a nearly 100 percent recidivism rate, states The Humane Society. Removing the animals from a hoarding situation can temporarily solve the problem, but long-term intervention is needed to prevent another crisis.

“A lot of animal control divisions see the same people over and over again,” Wilson said. “State laws and city ordinances don’t recognize the need for psychological evaluation of hoarders… and they really can’t stop themselves, so they start [hoarding] again as soon as they get out of the court system.”

The Humane Society recommends that animal control, social services agencies, and health and housing agencies work together to treat each animal hoarding case as a long-term project. There needs to be more done in order to prevent the cycle of animal neglect from continuing over and over. Psychological intervention and evaluation is lacking in these cases and it needs to be addressed to save the lives of innocent animals.

They Deserve Better 

Wilson has been working as an Animal Welfare Intervention Coordinator for about 45 years, and he says it doesn’t get much easier to see what happens to the animals he encounters on the job. But, the reward comes when an animal that has been neglected, abused or tortured is able to overcome that fear and pain.

“You watch them go from a dog that’s huddled in the back of the kennel, afraid of everything that’s happening, and over the course of several weeks they begin to blossom,” Wilson said. With patience and care from the staff at the shelter, the animals become used to human interaction and are able to feel safe, which is a feeling some of these animals have never had before.

Wilson told me people don’t get into his line of work for the money, but what you get out of it is much more rewarding. “To see these animals blossom until they finally go to a new home, a home that’s going to give them what they didn’t have before—it’s worth all the money in the world to me,” Wilson said.

Her name says it all; Lucky Penny has been given a second chance at the life she always deserved. From picking her lifeless body off of the feces-covered trailer floor she was trapped in, to taking her home, Sheriff Vos has changed Lucky Penny’s life and given her a new beginning.

In the ARL’s statement on the case they thanked the Warren County Sheriff’s office for their quick action. “Karma (Lucky Penny) and the 18 other dogs are alive today—they were literally saved just in time.”