By Maneka Gandhi
I have known Merritt Clifton for many years now. He, his wife Beth, and son Wolf are completely devoted to animals, and run an emagazine called ANIMALS 24-7 which you should all read.
One of their board members, Vicky Crosetti who died recently, was a nationally recognised expert in the phenomenon of hoarding. She had written an article on how to deal with this and I will quote liberally from her experience, because we have to deal with this on a regular basis and each case breaks my heart.
People who claim to love animals often mistreat them terribly. Not just the people who keep a single pet and lock him/her up the whole day at the gate, but the people who “rescue” animals from the street and take them back to their “shelters”/homes.
I start getting irate messages from neighbours, of people like this, who complain about filth and noise. When I send an investigation team, we find dozens of animals crowded into a small filthy space, all tied up, some in cages, many dead, and the others close to death. This is typical of “good intentions gone bad” and it signifies “obsessive-compulsive” behaviour. This is not just true of single people but of entire so called “shelters”. It breaks my heart when I see a shelter, which I have created or contributed to, whose caretakers I have believed in, show a completely different picture when I finally have it inspected. It turns out to be a crowded holding centre for hundreds of ill, diseased and wounded dogs. No medicine, no staff, no cleanliness and probably very little food. In the last ten years I have found at least 5 like this, the last one being a hellhole run by two sisters in Ghaziabad. I am not including gaushalas which are more or less all terrible – just hundreds of sick and dying cows kept for religious reasons and left to die unattended and unfed. Last year the two sisters were evicted from their flat in the middle of the night. The flat was full of garbage, old newspapers, cigarette butts, used sanitary napkins, and cats on the verge of death. The stench was unbearable. I helped them by organising lawyers, but they drove them crazy. It was clear that they both needed hospitalisation. Now I have a situation in Navi Mumbai where an elderly woman runs a “shelter” which has huge mortality, because it is literally a hellhole. Any attempt to stop her results in threats to commit suicide, slit wrists, begging on Facebook and promises to do better. But she has killed hundreds of animals. Each drama on the Net brings her in more money and public acclaim. I am the bad guy here.
Last month, I was sent a mail by someone who has a house near Kolkata. She wrote that she was an animal ‘rescuer’ and had run out of money. I called immediately. She had 60 cats and 50 dogs taken from the street – one house. Not one had been sterilised and most of them were pregnant. I asked People for Animals Kolkata to sterilise the animals immediately, and a very kind person in Kolkata offered money for the operations. One month later when I called, I learnt that most of the cats had died from a feline virus because she wouldn’t spend money on a vaccine. She became abusive when I told her to get the remaining vaccinated. There is no doubt that she is a typical hoarder.
We need to deal with these cases as one would deal with a normal cruelty case: have the person or perpetrator arrested for deliberate cruelty, and the animals taken away, treated and re-homed if possible. We need to make sure that this person is never going to control the fate of animals again. This is what Crosetti says, “Animal hoarding cases are cruelty cases. Whether one animal or 100 suffer, there is no valid excuse for it; original intentions are irrelevant; and legally extenuating circumstances, such as mental illness or personal crisis, are matters to address in the courtroom, often as obstacles to affecting the best outcome for the animals.”
Hoarders profess to love their animals. Their love, however, tends to be thinly veiled obsessive possessiveness. They use the word “mine” a lot and see the animals as property, probably the only property they have. They do not want to part with their animals under any circumstance, even death.
I have seen this in three of my PFA units which, unfortunately, continue to keep the name but have nothing to do with us: one of the women managers is a widow, the other unmarried, the third is run by an unmarried, failed homeopath. They do a dreadful job, and the shelters, which I built for them, are in shambles and the animals suffer hugely. But they will not give them up to a better team, will allow no volunteers, are rude to everyone, cry easily, tell a lot of lies and fight like cornered rats if even one of the animals is sought to be adopted. They will not sterilise the animals. In one of these shelters two rescued rabbits had been put into a cage, and when I inspected it there were over one hundred, of which many had literally been squashed to death. When I put my foot down, they took out ads accusing me of undue interference, and literally absconded with the shelters which are now simply hoarding centres for animals that are not fed or treated. I wish I could have them arrested for causing such mass misery under the guise of animal welfare. These three need to go to jail – but the police don’t seem to take cruelty at all seriously.
In every case I have attempted soft interventions: offering money for volunteers and staff, offering to take the animals or get a doctor to treat them. No deal. “Hoarders are addicts. Like any addicts, they will do and say anything to satisfy the demands of their habit.”
“Hoarders who are reclusive eccentrics elicit sympathy. Those who manage an articulate, well-dressed facade seem to make a credible case that they are misunderstood and mistreated.”
Hoarders believe that life, endured in any amount of misery, is preferable to death. But they never get rid of the dead either. In so many of these cases I have seen dead animals lying all over their premises.
Hoarders are also very secretive. They never make friends. Hoarding sites tend to be both unimaginably filthy and in dangerous disrepair. They slide in and out of their residences and only the smell gives them away. From experience I know what Crosetti says, “Hoarders often are almost frightening in their ability to one moment appear tearful, pleading, and pathetic, yet the next moment rage out of control, screaming obscenities.” They can also become real physical threats, which is why we need a team when we deal with one.
A specific protocol is needed: capture nets, drugs, safety gear, and carriers in the ambulance and a police backup. Get in touch with good shelters beforehand so that animals can immediately be put there if you have a housing problem. Videotape the operation. Each rescued animal needs a complete veterinary examination and, if necessary, have a media person present. Public outrage over animals being treated cruelly can move the police to act faster. How judges sentence offenders is often influenced by their perception of public concern.
Everyone should know what a good shelter is: it is a safe haven where animal are treated kindly. “Animals do not starve in a shelter, do not kill each other in fights, do not live in filth, do not suffer from untreated disease and injury, and they do not breed.” Whether the shelter is big or small, whether it is run by an organisation or one person, whether it is on institutional land or in a person’s home, these are the rules.
(To join the animal welfare movement contact firstname.lastname@example.org, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)