The Bay Area’s two primary animal rescues are grappling with too much of a good thing after they persuaded a local family to surrender its hoard of more than 60 cats.
The colony was found living in a Northwoods home — the family was guaranteed anonymity in exchange for giving up the cats — and the animals now are being cared for by Helping PAWS rescue in Washburn, the Chequamegon Humane Association in Ashland and another Northwoods shelter. The cats were in bad condition but now are being treated for illnesses and some even have already been adopted by new owners.
“Imagine 63 cases of fleas, 126 ears with ear mites and other infections, 63 tummies full of a variety of parasites,” said Gretchen Gerber, a Washburn veterinarian who works with Helping PAWS. “And that doesn’t even begin to measure the task of treating all of the individual illnesses: sinus infections, pneumonia, diarrhea, a crumpled ear here, an injured eye there. Did I mention 63 spays-neuters?”
And even as the cats are going to new homes, those involved in the rescue are hoping the situation will help others to come forward and ask for help to prevent more animals suffering as these did.
The local rescues got involved in early January when a volunteer at Helping PAWS connected with a member of the family that owned the cats.
“That family member had commented that they would like to reach out for help but wasn’t sure how to do that,” Gerber said. “So it was the Helping PAWS volunteer who made the initial introductions.”
Once Helping PAWS became aware of the size of the colony, it reached out to CHA for help in both crating and transporting the cats and then housing them as they were being cataloged and treated.
The conditions the rescuers found at the home were not surprising, given the situation.
“Only the two gals they knew were allowed to go in, but it was bad,” said Ann Riederer, a volunteer and board member with CHA. “You can’t have (63) cats in the house and have it not be. But she loved these cats. She had them all named and knew how old they were. They really think they were doing the right thing for them.”
That’s the difficult conundrum the rescues face: This is not the first hording situation they’ve encountered, and it surely won’t be the last.
Hoarding is considered a psychiatric disorder by physicians, defined as “the accumulation of a large number of animals and a failure to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care and to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals and the environment.”
In the most extreme conditions, scores of animals can be found packed together in small homes with feces and urine covering the floors and walls and sick or even dead animals posing a health risk to both owners and other animals.
Cats are the most often-hoarded animal, according to Psychiatric Times magazine, and hoarders typically have an “unshakable belief that they are saving, rescuing or caring for their animals, which they see as being well or happy.”
CHA Executive Director Kari Olinger, who once was part of an intervention with an owner of more than 200 animals, said pet rescuers often turn into amateur counselors in such situations.
“A lot of them are afraid of judgment and prosecution,” she said of hoarders. “We tend not to prosecute here, or to turn it over over for prosecution, because we would prefer to help. They’re afraid to get in trouble and in the meantime the problem gets worse and worse and worse.”
Worse and worse because once you have one tomcat and a fertile female in the house, well, kittens always come next.
“What do you do when the local vet wants $300 to spay one cat?” Riederer said. “The average person can’t afford that. We want to give this family credit for doing the right thing. They’re not terrible people or anything. They started out taking in cats and became overwhelmed.”
That’s the message all the rescuers involved want to spread: Call for help before it gets overwhelming.
Riederer said both shelters and authorities have a role to play in preventing the suffering — by both animals and people — that inevitably comes with hoarding.
“In the past, shelters would a lot of times not take privately owned animals,” she said. “That has changed now. We want to help you do the right thing. You can’t just let it go and hope for the best.”
And Olinger believes more local officials need to be aware of the problem and act on it.
“Some towns and municipalities have limits on how many pets you can own. I think Ashland and Washburn do,” she said. “But as you get in more rural areas, they don’t have those policies or rules. Most people who are hording are out in the country where no one will notice. It’s tricky situation.”
The situation is made trickier still by the animals themselves. Often, hoarded pets revert to almost feral behavior and develop their own mental health issues.
“While cats are social animals with certain social needs, cats also have a strong requirement for personal space,” Gerber, the veterinarian, said. “Cats that have to live together in a concentrated small space experience extreme stress. And extremely stressed individuals are much more susceptible to illness and also by their close proximity, are more likely to transmit contagious illness.”
That was the case in this situation. But the cats were surprisingly well socialized and will be ready for new homes as soon as their medical problems are resolved.
“Only a very few have been extremely shy and lucky for us, an adopter stepped forward who specifically wanted to help with the less-adoptable individuals,” Gerber said. “A lot of these kitties are already living their happily ever after; five from Helping PAWS are homed already.”
And while Gerber and Olinger both consider this a success story with a happy ending, both also will be recovering from the hoard for some time. Helping PAWS takes in about 120 cats in a typical year, so this influx consumed six months of resources — and left Gerber with aching fingers from performing 35 volunteer spay and neuter operations.
“That means we will have to budget much more carefully for the next couple of months,” she said. “But helping such a large number of deserving pets gives all our volunteers and supporters a really great feeling. With with the Packers loss over the weekend, we really needed a big win and I think this is a really big win, especially for the kitties.”