Duluth animal control takes new approach with hoarderIn October, Duluth experienced one of its worst hoarding cases in recent memory, said Kelly Higbee, a Duluth Police Department animal-control worker who found more than 60 cats and kittens in a Central Hillside home.
By: Julie Kruse, Duluth News Tribune
In October, Duluth experienced one of its worst hoarding cases in recent memory, said Kelly Higbee, a Duluth Police Department animal-control worker who found more than 60 cats and kittens in a Central Hillside home.
Since then, Higbee and her co-worker, Carrie Lane, have built a relationship with the hoarder in an attempt to prevent a relapse. The man who they say took in and fed any cat that wandered his way was charged with no crime.
Once the hoarder finds a stable home, they will return four cats to him — a move that might seem surprising to the public. But Lane said that tactic has been the most successful in her 24 years of experience in dealing with hoarders.
In the wake of the October hoarding case, the two animal-control workers and other professionals discussed the evolving strategy of dealing with pet hoarding, now officially recognized by U.S. psychiatrists as a mental illness.
‘Out of control’
When Carrie Lane and Kelly Higbee arrived at the man’s home on Oct. 16, they were prepared for the worst.
“We got a report from a building inspector because they were on the property for a vehicle to be removed,” Higbee said. “When the police officer and building inspector pulled up, they saw all the cats in the yard without even going inside.”
Higbee said there were 30 cats outside as they approached the home, with a total of 68 cats inside and out. The owner kept the indoor and outdoor cats separated.
“The cats knew where to go because he was feeding them,” Higbee said. “He pretty much fed every cat in the neighborhood.”
Higbee described the hoarder as a calm man whose life with pets “got out of control.”
“He started with four cats and then they had babies, who had babies,” she said.
Once the cats were surrendered, they found that only one cat was neutered. Lane couldn’t file charges because none of the animals inside of the home were found dead.
She said that hoarders are typically mentally ill but not criminals. Charges can lead to less cooperation from hoarders and scare others from asking for help in the future.
“In this case, this guy literally helped us trap the cats and get them here,” Lane said. “He drove cats here; he brought the cats in willingly once we knew what was going on in his house.”
Lane formed a deal in which the man agreed to call the shelter every month, and to allow them to check up on his home every month. She said when hoarders feel as though animal-control workers are trying to help them, they usually agree to such terms.
However, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that an animal hoarder’s relapse rate is almost 100 percent without intervention, according to Dr. Karen L. Cassiday, a clinical assistant professor at Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Sciences.
Only a few cats from the case remain at the shelter and the rest have new homes. The man is close to getting his four now-neutered cats back. He’s staying with a friend until sometime in January, when he will move to a new home.
That cats have served as a carrot for the man to apply for housing and see a counselor or social services, Lane said.
“We need to see that you’re making some effort to help yourself. As long as we see that, we’ll work with you,” she said. “For him, that’s been really motivating.”
Lane said she wants to “let him have at least enough cats to settle him down and make him feel comfortable.”
“He’s going to have that need for multiple pets somehow,” Lane said. “He knows that four is the maximum number, and he can’t have more than that.”
An issue of control
Most of the time pet-hoarding is an issue of control, said Dr. Amanda Bruce, of PetCare of Duluth.
“They mentally put up a block of not wanting other people to intervene,” Bruce said. “The only way I can describe it from what I’ve seen is: ‘Nobody can do better for this animal than I am doing.’ ”
Bruce has heard the analogy that hoarders are similar to people with eating disorders.
“People with eating disorders can look into a mirror and still see a fat girl looking back at them,” Bruce said. “Hoarders can accumulate dozens of animals and still look at those animals and say that they are changing the animal and taking care of the animal better than anybody else ever could.”
Once the city animal-control workers were involved, they contacted the Northland Spay/Neuter clinic and the Animal Allies Humane Society. The trio of groups worked together to find homes for the cats.
“One of our challenges with this hoarding case was that it was a very short notice, and we were already at capacity within our shelters for (cats),” said John Gustafson, the communications director at Animal Allies. “That added to our emergency.”
This led to no-fee adoptions. From Oct. 23 to Oct. 30, the two shelters in Duluth adopted out 94 cats, most of which were already in their possession. They then worked with other shelters to accommodate the remaining cats from the hoarding case.
Another problem, Gustafson said, is that Duluth’s shelters are no-kill. If a healthy cat or dog comes to them, they find a home for it, which is different from many shelters across the country, many that do euthanize animals if they struggle with space, Gustafson said.
That often means free adoptions for cats.
“Whether or not we have the money to cover those lost fees doesn’t really matter,” said Sarah Ojard, the adoption program manager at Animal Allies. “If we take a hit because of the situation, it’s better to take a monetary hit on our end than to euthanize cats. We act first and figure out the numbers later.”
Duluth is ranked 15th among the U.S. “No-Kill” shelters, according to the No Kill Houston organizational website. They had a 93 percent save rate in 2010.
“We had a lot of adopters who would come and say, ‘Where are the cats from the hoarding case? I want to save one of them,’ ” Ojard said. “I think it’s that feeling of saving a helpless animal.”
Controlling cat numbers
According to Animal Allies Humane Society and city of Duluth annual reports, the shelter took in more than 1,100 cats in 2011. Some were surrendered by owners, some were strays and some were confiscated.
Of those, 493 cats and kittens were from Duluth’s streets. The city of Duluth’s highest populated areas with community cats are in the neighborhoods of Lincoln Park, Central Hillside and downtown Duluth.
Forty-five percent of the cats in the Northland Spay/Neuter 2009-2010 feline intake report came from Lincoln Park and Central Hillside, said Meggan Neve, its program manager. That number contributes to 23 percent of the cat population of Duluth.
However, she said, since Northland Spay/Neuter opened in 2009, the number of cats entering city shelters has decreased by 27 percent.
But stray cats persist because residents continue to provide food, water and shelter.
“If you take the cats all out of that area, it doesn’t solve the problem, because what happens then is you have a vacuum effect,” Neve said. “Others cats (from outlying areas) will still move in because there is still food, water and shelter there.”
With cats having two to three litters a year, experts say that getting your animal spayed or neutered is be the best way to control the fast reproduction.
“A lot of people don’t realize if you have cats fixed, it will get rid of the smells with them, the fighting and the undesirable behaviors people don’t like in them,” Neve said. “It also controls how many cats and kittens are being born outside.”
Is there a permanent solution to this issue?
For veterinarians like Bruce, highlighting hoarding gives those who do it a chance to seek help.
“In the past, animals that came into the city of Duluth shelter as strays would have a pretty good chance that they would be put to sleep,” Bruce said. “Now that Duluth doesn’t euthanize any of its animals in its shelters, people are more likely to give up stray cats because they know there is a positive outcome.”
Higbee said she thinks the number of animal hoarding cases isn’t likely to drop.
“The same people who do it will do it no matter what,” she said. “I don’t think the mental state of the people changes throughout the years.”
But for those who have the condition, she said, if they take advantage of things like free spaying and neutering, it “could possibly keep the problem from spiraling out of control.”
Julie Kruse is a student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, majoring in communication and minoring in journalism.