Animal Hoarding in Florida: Addressing the Ongoing Animal, Human, and Public Health Crisis
Animal hoarding is a quiet epidemic in Florida. It is a misunderstood and under-recognized problem that has serious negative consequences for animal and human welfare, creates significant property damage, and causes a substantial economic burden on government, mental health and animal organizations, and ultimately taxpayers.1
The most obvious victims in animal hoarding cases are the animals themselves. Unlike animal cruelty and abuse cases in which a single animal is injured or killed in an act of violence, the suffering from the neglect found in animal hoarding can be exponentially worse. Hoarded animals are kept in inhumane and squalid conditions for long periods of time with inadequate food, water, and medical care. However, in more recent years, professionals have started to recognize the significant human suffering that occurs in animal hoarding cases. Animal hoarding is often associated with self-neglect by the hoarders themselves and places other family members, such as minor children, elderly relatives, and dependent or disabled adults, at serious risk as well.2
Because of the nature of hoarding, the living spaces where it occurs are often seriously compromised, and basic sanitation has been rendered impossible.3 Usually, the inside of a hoarder’s home is covered with animal waste, trash, and sometimes even rotting animal carcasses.4 From a neighborhood perspective, other items kept by the hoarder can pose a fire risk. Rodent and insect infestations, as well as odors and ammonia levels, cause the problem to become a nuisance for entire communities.5
Having said this, it is difficult to estimate the scope of the problem. While there are incidents involving hoarding in almost every community around the state, no dedicated state-wide tracking of the number of cases or outcomes presently exists. While firm statistics are not readily available, some surveys at the national level suggest that at least 3,000 cases of animal hoarding occur annually in the United States and that these cases involve a quarter-million animals.6 Extrapolating these figures to Florida would mean that there are hundreds of cases involving thousands of animals every year.
Although animal hoarding is still not well understood, the criteria of what constitutes animal hoarding is generally agreed on. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), a group that frequently becomes involved in hoarding cases, uses the following criteria developed by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) at Tufts University to describe animal hoarding:7
• An individual possesses more than the typical number of companion animals.
• The individual is unable to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness, and death.
• The individual is in denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of the dwelling.
Although dogs and cats are the most common animals in hoarding cases, almost any type of animal can be a victim. Domestic animals other than dogs and cats, farm animals, and wildlife are all potential targets of hoarding.8
Costs Associated with Hoarding Cases
The financial costs associated with hoarding are also difficult to quantify, but they are substantial and frequently are recurring and ongoing. Because the rate of recidivism among untreated animal hoarders approaches 100 percent, it is not atypical for hoarders to have a string of involvements with authorities that go on for years. Local animal control and animal shelters have limited budgets and are ill equipped to investigate these cases. When the problem becomes large enough that some type of intervention becomes necessary, animal control officers and other nonprofit animal organizations struggle with housing and feeding the large numbers of animals that are seized.
Hoarding cases are also a considerable burden on finite judicial resources. In one well-documented case that began in Broward County, an individual named Vikki Kittles was initially charged with animal cruelty in 1985.9 In 1994, after having moved from Florida to Mississippi, Colorado, and Washington, Kittles was finally brought to trial in Oregon.10 During the trial, which lasted five weeks at a cost to the county of $150,000, Kittles fired seven court-appointed attorneys, eventually representing herself, filed hundreds of legal motions, and had four different judges remove themselves from the case.11 Ultimately, she was convicted of 42 counts of first-degree animal neglect and sentenced to four months in jail with an additional 71 days for contempt.12 Although she was not allowed to possess animals under the terms of her probation, she was not required to remain in the state and officials had no way to monitor her activities; and she has continued to obtain animals and have run-ins with authorities in different states related to animals in her possession.13 While the Kittles case is an extreme example, all hoarding cases have the potential for these issues to occur because the court system and current law are ill-suited to deal with the mental health and other issues associated with hoarding.
The Psychology of Hoarding
Part of the problem that courts, government agencies, attorneys, and organizations face in dealing with animal hoarding is that there is a lack of awareness about what causes the behavior and how best to treat it. The science behind what motivates hoarders is a relatively new area of study for mental health professionals.14 The term animal hoarding was initially coined in 1999 by HARC.15 At the time, the term most widely used for the phenomena was “animal collecting.” The researchers at HARC believed that referring to the behavior as “collecting” minimized the seriousness of the disorder by using terminology that was seen as being consistent with a benign hobby.16
Hoarding disorder is now an official diagnosis in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which is the standard of classification of mental disorders used by professionals. However, while animal hoarding fits the criteria of hoarding disorder, the DSM-5 did not list it as an official subtype.17 The DSM-5 describes animal hoarding as a condition associated with a hoarding disorder that is defined by “the accumulation of a large number of animals and a failure to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, and veterinary care and failure to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals (e.g., disease, starvation, death) and the environment (e.g., severe overcrowding, extremely unsanitary conditions).”
More recently, mental health experts have suggested that people who hoard animals can be classified into three different types: 1) overwhelmed caregivers; 2) rescuers; and 3) exploiters.18 Understanding which classification a particular hoarder falls into is important in crafting the appropriate response in trying to stop the behavior. Overwhelmed caregivers are individuals who owned a large number of animals that may have been relatively well-cared for until a life-changing event occurs, such as the death of a spouse, job loss, or ill health.19 The acquisition of animals is more passive, with uncontrolled breeding by unneutered and unspayed animals accounting for the growth of the animal population.20 Overwhelmed caregivers are also the most likely to have some awareness of their problem and will tend to minimize the situation rather than deny it completely.21 Therefore, intervention with these individuals when they are confronted is the most likely to be successful.
Rescuers have a strong sense of mission to save animals from presumed threats.22 Most rescuers strongly oppose euthanasia and fear the death of their animals, even though they are unable to recognize the poor care they provide.23 Rescuers are more active in their acquisition of new animals and will seek out new animals that they perceive to be in need of rescue, even by presenting themselves as a legitimate animal shelter or sanctuary.24 Rescuer cases are harder to resolve because the people that engage in this type of hoarding will go to great lengths to thwart interventions by authorities or outside influence.25
Cases involving exploiters are the most difficult to resolve and often involve the most serious levels of animal suffering.26 Exploiters often exhibit sociopathic tendencies and have no attachment or empathy for humans or animals.27 They exhibit extreme senses of denial about their problem and reject other’s concerns.28 They also can be manipulative, narcissistic, and lack guilt or remorse.29
Recognizing Animal Hoarding
Attorneys face a unique set of challenges when it comes to animal hoarding, and the behavior can show up in almost any type of case. While the most obvious cases involve criminal prosecutions or actions by animal control authorities, hoarders will frequently seek legal advice. All three types of animal hoarders often appear to be intelligent, and they believe that everything they are doing is in the furtherance of helping their animals.30 Moreover, because animal hoarders believe they are justified in their behavior and can view the interactions with law enforcement or local government as an attack, they can also be very effective in garnering sympathy from others and creating the appearance that they are the victims. Hoarders who view themselves as legitimate rescue groups will approach attorneys in taking the necessary steps to register for nonprofit status. When the hoarding behavior has created a public nuisance, hoarders and their neighbors will seek legal counsel to resolve property disputes. Hoarders will also approach family and estate planners to try to provide some protection of the animals under their control.
Attorneys who are approached to become involved in these cases should be cognizant of the following red flags that may indicate that an individual or rescue group is engaging in animal hoarding:31
• They have numerous animals and may not know the total number of animals in their care.
• Their home is deteriorated (i.e., dirty windows, broken furniture, holes in wall and floor, extreme clutter).
• There is a strong smell of ammonia, and floors may be covered with dried feces, urine, vomit, etc.
• The animals kept are emaciated, lethargic, and not well socialized.
• Fleas and vermin are present.
• The individual is isolated from community and appears to be neglecting himself or herself.
• The individual insists that all animals are happy and healthy — even when there are clear signs of distress and illness.
• The purported rescue group is unwilling to let visitors see the location where animals are kept.
• The purported rescue group will not disclose the number of animals in its care and makes little effort to adopt animals out.
• More animals are continually taken in, despite the poor condition of existing animals.
• Legitimate shelters and rescue organizations are viewed as the enemy.
• New animals may be received at a remote location (parking lot, street corner, etc.) rather than at the group’s facilities.
Breaking the Cycle of Recidivism
As noted above, the cycle of hoarding is difficult to break and recidivism rates approach 100 percent without some type of intervention. While there are a number of reasons for recidivism and the unending cycle, one of the main reasons is that historically animal hoarding has been seen as an issue that only needs to be addressed by animal control and welfare agencies.32 While these organizations can at great cost be effective at dealing with the symptom of the problem, i.e., the hoarded animals, they are not well suited to deal with the other risks and problems that occur. When individuals make complaints about animal hoarders, the focus continues to be on the animals, and any legal action is likely to be based on statutory provisions prohibiting animal abuse and neglect.33 The mental health and welfare of the hoarder and other humans in the household are often not the focus, and, therefore, social service agencies and mental health organizations are unlikely to respond.34
The media also plays a role in preventing effective interventions in hoarding cases. Hoarders are often described as individuals who love animals too much or well-meaning people that wanted to run a shelter or rescue effort only to become overwhelmed.35 Rather than present a realistic picture of the complex nature of hoarding, articles include emotional themes that elicit revulsion, sympathy, or humor rather than a true understanding of the problem.36 When hoarding stories are portrayed in this emotional way, it can cause the public to be sympathetic and supportive of the hoarder even resulting in donations and offers of more animals.37
Having noted these challenges, attorneys and judges also stand in one of the best positions to effectively intervene and break the cycle of recidivism. A hoarder’s interaction with the legal system, either through soliciting advice or in a court case, creates a situation in which intervention can occur. To maximize success, HARC suggests a multidisciplinary approach where various stakeholders are aware of their roles, and communications between the stakeholders result in a comprehensive, rather than segmented response.38 These stakeholders include, but are not limited to, agencies working on behalf of animals, the court system, local law enforcement, health and mental health departments, social services, code enforcement, and legal aid.39
Statutory Reform and Other Solutions
Another step that can be taken to break the cycle would be to revise Florida’s animal cruelty statutes to be more effective in dealing with situations involving neglect of animals and providing for mental health assessments of individuals. Currently, most prosecutions involving animal hoarding occur under the criminal provisions governing cruelty to animals or confinement of animals without sufficient food, water, or exercise.40 While these provisions may help address the symptoms of animal hoarding, they do not use the term hoarding, and criminal prosecution by itself does not provide a solution to the underlying mental health issues.
Moreover, there is tangential evidence that trial courts struggle with how to apply the language in the cruelty statutes to these situations. In one Florida case, an appellee was arrested for having approximately 77 poodles in cages in the back of a van without food, water, and sufficient air.41 While the appellate court reversed the decision, the trial court initially dismissed the criminal charges finding that provisions on adequate food or water were unconstitutionally void for vagueness because:
“[A] person of common intelligence would have to guess at what conduct constituted a failure to supply an animal with a sufficient quantity of good and wholesome food and water, as well as what were the requirements regarding how frequently an animal must be exercised or when the air in the area of confinement must be changed.”42
In another case, a maintenance worker discovered a defendant’s dog that had apparently jumped from a second story window at an apartment complex.43 After many unsuccessful attempts to reach the defendant at his job, the maintenance worker entered the apartment and discovered the bloated body of a dead dog in a cage, two dead turtles, a dead lizard, and a dead bird.44 One bird was found barely alive, as was one skinny, “dried out” snake.45 Also found alive, confined by a gate in the kitchen, was an emaciated Australian Shepherd dog with a sunken stomach that was surrounded by urine and feces.46 There was no evidence of food or water anywhere in the apartment.47 The living dog, whose name was Pepsi, appeared unable to get up and had to be carried from the apartment.48
The defendant was charged with and convicted of two counts of felony animal cruelty, but the trial court expressed a number of misgivings about the statute leading up to the jury’s verdict, including reservations about whether veterinary testimony that Pepsi was malnourished, dehydrated, too weak to stand, and without muscle mass was sufficient proof because there was no testimony that he suffered pain due to the withholding of food.49 The trial judge ultimately reduced the convictions to misdemeanors based on his belief that the statutory construction was unclear.50 On appeal, the trial judge’s decision stood because the district court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction to even review the trial court’s decision to reject the jury’s verdict and to reduce the defendant’s conviction.51 Although it could not affect the outcome, the late Judge Jacqueline Griffin wrote a concurring opinion expressing her view that the trial court’s decision was “dangerously wrong” and that it was “a felony to starve a dog to death, or deprive it of sustenance to the point where, like Pepsi, it has no muscle mass and is too weak even to stand.”52
To avoid these issues and address any perceived ambiguity, Florida’s current animal cruelty statutes could be amended to expressly address animal hoarding. Updated statutes could provide guidance on offering and ordering mental health assessments and other sentencing options for defendants, such as long-term supervision and monitoring and prohibitions on owning animals.53 A limited number of states have adopted specific legislation to address hoarding.54 For example, Illinois statutes define the term “companion animal hoarder” and requires courts to order psychological evaluations and treatment for individuals convicted on animal hoarding.55 There is currently a bill before the Florida Legislature that would define animal hoarding and provide for psychological evaluation and counseling.56
There are other potential ways to help stem the animal hoarding crisis. In addition to changes to statutes at the state level, local governments can adopt ordinances that provide additional authorization and tools to intervene effectively in situations involving hoarders. While the nature of such an ordinance and what should be included is beyond the scope of this article, HARC has provided at least one model ordinance for local governments to consider.57
Creating a system of tracking and reporting the cases and outcomes would be useful in determining the scope of the problem and developing solutions. Such a goal might be best implemented by a multidisciplinary task force consisting of the different stakeholders mentioned above. Such a task force could create standardized protocols for dealing with hoarders.58 Finally, it is important to provide education for attorneys, judges, and the public about the true costs and nature of animal hoarding and how it impacts not only animals negatively, but the people involved in the cases. The new Animal Law Section of The Florida Bar has set this type of education as one of its goals and this article represents part of that effort. While animal hoarding is a complex, costly, and poorly understood phenomenon, it is a crisis that can be tackled.
1 Gary Patronek, et al., Animal Hoarding: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals, and Communities at Risk, Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (2006), available at http://vet.tufts.edu/wp-content/uploads/AngellReport.pdf.
2 Id. at 1.
3 Gary Patronek, The Problem of Animal Hoarding, Municipal Lawyer (May/June 2001), available at http://vet.tufts.edu/wp-content/uploads/municipalawyer.pdf.
4 Colin Berry, et al., Long-Term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases, 11 Animal L. 167 (2005).
5 Patronek, The Problem of Animal Hoarding, Municipal Lawyer at 2.
6 Gary Patronek, Animal Hoarding: Its Roots and Recognition, Veterinary Medicine (Aug. 2006), available at http://veterinarymedicine.dvm360.com/animal-hoarding-its-roots-and-recognition. In an effort to better understand the problem in Florida, in 2014, The Florida Bar Animal Law Committee created an Animal Hoarding Task Force to examine the issue. Anecdotally, during the time the task force was operating, reports from around the state of multiple animal seizures were an almost daily occurrence. It is safe to say that Florida was and still is in the midst of a hoarding crisis.
7 ASPCA, A Closer Look at Animal Hoarding, http://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/animal-hoarding/closer-look-animal-hoarding.
8 Tufts University, Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, FAQs for Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, http://vet.tufts.edu/hoarding/faqs-hoarding/.
9 Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Hoarding Case Study: Vikki Kittles; see also Joshua Marquis, The Kittles Case and its Aftermath, 2 Animal L. 197 (1996).
14 Randy Frost, et al., The Hoarding of Animals: An Update, Psychiatric Times (Apr. 2015), available at https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/hoarding-animals-update.
15 Patronek, Animal Hoarding: Its Roots and Recognition, Veterinary Medicine.
17 Frost, et al., The Hoarding of Animals: An Update, Psychiatric Times.
30 ASPCA, A Closer Look at Animal Hoarding, http://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/animal-hoarding/closer-look-animal-hoarding.
32 Patronek, et al., Animal Hoarding: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals, and Communities at Risk, Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium; Patronek, The Problem of Animal Hoarding, Municipal Lawyer.
36 Berry, et al., Long-Term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases, 11 Animal L. 167 at 170-171.
37 Id. at 171.
38 Patronek, et al., Animal Hoarding: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals, and Communities at Risk, Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.
39 In situations in which a hoarder is represented by counsel, attorneys should offer help beyond simply trying to resolve a hoarder’s legal issues. The issue is complicated by the fact that seeking help may require needing to disclose the client suffers from a mental disorder. As research cited above demonstrates, animal hoarding is a recognized mental illness, and often the person engaged in the hoarding behavior will not make decisions that are in their own interest. Rule 4-1.14 of The Florida Rules of Professional Conduct deals with clients suffering from a disability. When mental disability impairs a client’s ability to make adequately considered decisions in connection with the representation, attorneys must still, as far as reasonably possible, maintain a normal client-lawyer relationship with the client. However, the comment to the rule recognizes that maintaining the ordinary client-lawyer relationship may not be possible in all respects when a client suffers from a mental disorder. The comment to the rule also recognizes that disclosure of a client’s disability can adversely affect the client’s interests and that the lawyer may seek guidance from an appropriate diagnostician. Most importantly, attorneys should reassure their clients that it is all right to accept help. Working to address concerns, such as the fear that animals given up will be euthanized, can pave the way for mental health help.
40 Fla. Stat. §828.12(1) & (2) (2016); Fla. Stat. §828.13 (2016).
41 State v. Wilson, 464 So. 2d 667 (Fla. 2d DCA 1985). The Second District Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s determination noting that there is a presumption of constitutionality inherent in any statutory analysis. Id. The Second District held that the provisions in the statute were definite enough to apprise persons of common intelligence of the proscribed activities and that the prohibitions against depriving an animal of sufficient food, water, air, and exercise, when measured by common understanding and practice, are not unconstitutionally vague. Id. The Second District also stated that it would be impossible to draft a statute to encompass all situations in which treatment of an animal would be cruel because of the deprivation of any of the above elements. Id.
43 Hynes v. State, 1 So. 3d 328, 329 (Fla. 5th DCA 2009).
49 Id. at 330.
51 Id. (citing Exposito v. State, 891 So. 2d 525 (Fla. 2004)).
53 Berry, et al., Long-Term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases, 11 Animal L. 167 at 188.
54 See, e.g., 510 Ill. Comp. Stat. 70/2.10, 70/3, 70/3.01 & 70/3.02 (2016).
56 S.B. 212 (2017).
57 Patronek, et al., Animal Hoarding: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals, and Communities at Risk, Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium at Appendix 2.
58 Berry, et al., Long-Term Outcomes in Animal Hoarding Cases, 11 Animal L. 167 at 188. HARC has created sample inter-agency memoranda of understanding and provided a statutory model for establishing a multidisciplinary team as well; Patronek, et al., Animal Hoarding: Structuring Interdisciplinary Responses to Help People, Animals, and Communities at Risk, Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium at Appendix 3-5.
Gregg Riley Morton is a Tallahassee-based government attorney. He is past chair of the Animal Law Committee of The Florida Bar and the chair-elect of the new Animal Law Section of The Florida Bar.
This column is submitted on behalf of the Animal Law Section, Ralph DeMeo, chair, and Deborah C. Brown, editor.