First there's the smell.
Before entering an East State Boulevard house in 2008 to discover 24 dogs, cats, fish, turtles, snakes and tarantulas, animal control officers were hit by a strong odor of feces and urine drifting through the closed front door. With children at potential risk, welfare officials were called.
In 2006, the odor was so strong at a house on Jones Street downtown that officers used hazmat suits with air supplies to trek through mounds of debris and cat feces. They rounded up 32 cats fed by an owner who lived around the corner with more animals.
Days earlier on Kyle Road, on Fort Wayne's near southwest side, two officers entered a home without respirators and began vomiting after experiencing burning in their chests and breathing difficulties.
Nineteen cats were taken away that day, but officers would return to the home again and again in later years.
Animal hoarding, found in every community and across all socioeconomic boundaries, is a disorder experts are just beginning to understand. At some point in the 1980s, researchers recognized the eccentric cat lady – whose good intentions lapsed into neglect – needed help beyond what animal control officials could provide.
Only last week animal shelter workers removed at least 70 dogs and puppies from a mobile home in Greene County in southern Indiana. The residents outfitted the interior with chain-link pens, according to The Associated Press.
Tens of dozens of animals have been discovered in homes living on top of each other, feces piled upon feces, floors becoming literal wastelands, with owners relegated to secondary boarders as their walls decay around them.
One Fort Wayne homeowner kept her personal items on the back porch and her cats in upstairs bedrooms: one for unspayed females, another for non-neutered males and a third for those that didn't get along with other cats. Officers impounded 43 cats there early this year, according to Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control reports.
With windows kept shut to keep the smell from neighbors, ammonia levels can rise above federal workplace safety standards. The unsanitary conditions threaten health and can be reason to separate children from their families.
Popular TV programs have brought attention to hoarding and its mental health aspect. The cases are as sensational by nature as they are sensitive in providing a glimpse into human frailties. More women than men have been found to hoard animals, although researchers are unsure why that is.
In 2008, Animal Care and Control took 42 cats out of a neighborhood on the near-north side, but the man living at the home told The Journal Gazette he and his wife are not hoarders and asked that his name not be used. The cats grew from two kittens given to his wife, he said, acknowledging the situation wasn't healthy.
"I didn't know they would multiply like that," he said. "To be honest with you, we knew it was beginning to be a problem, but we didn't want to take them to the shelter and have them killed."
The couple, in their 50s, voluntarily gave up all but a dog and four cats, which are spayed and neutered, he said.
A costly problem
Animal hoarding cases can cost communities a few thousand dollars to more than $100,000 depending on severity and agencies involved, according to a 2006 report from the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium at Tufts University. The collaborative, active between 1997 and 2006, studied animal hoarding and is a clearinghouse for information.
For Animal Care and Control alone, a 2008 hoarding case on Clover Lane cost $1,266, according to agency figures. That doesn't include police, fire and Neighborhood Code Enforcement personnel who responded.
And there are signs animal hoarding is growing.
A Clinical Psychology Review study in 2009 cites a fivefold increase between 2000 and 2006 based on a national animal cruelty database.
"From a population perspective, animal hoarding directly affects at least 3,000 persons per year, devastates considerably more families and relationships, threatens the health of minors and dependent adults, incurs significant costs to communities, and harms hundreds of thousands of animals annually," according to the study, citing past research.
While researchers first described the accumulation of large numbers of pets in 1981, animal hoarding wasn't defined until 1999 by Dr. Gary J. Patronek, then head of the Center of Animals and Public Policy at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and co-author of the Clinical Psychology Review study.
An animal hoarder, Patronek noted, is someone who accumulates a large number of animals, fails to provide minimal care, doesn't act on the deteriorating conditions of the animals and environment or the effects on their own health and that of other household members.
"I used to call them lose, lose, lose. The community lost, the shelter lost, the animals lost and the hoarder lost," Patronek said in a phone interview. He is now vice president for animal welfare and new program development at the Animal Rescue League of Boston. "There were just no good solutions at that time."
Experts believe depression, unresolved grief, obsessive-compulsive disorder and abuse are just a few of the issues that might contribute to the disorder. But among the many unknowns, one thing is clear: Once caught, animal hoarders are all but certain to do it again.
Averting a tragedy
To counter that, Fort Wayne has a multiagency response, one of the nation's earliest efforts to address animal hoarding. Depending on the case, any number of agencies can be called in: the health department, Neighborhood Code Enforcement, fire department, police department, mental health experts, adult protective services or child protective services.
Even before then animal control officers try to build relationships with known hoarders to convince them of the potential harm and to reduce the number of animals rather than prosecute, said Belinda Lewis, director of Animal Care and Control.
Only months after the multiagency response began in 1988, Lewis had what she calls her first textbook case.
A woman in her 50s had lived with her animals through Fort Wayne's 1982 flood in a one-bedroom house off West Main Street, Lewis said. From then until she was discovered in 1989 the woman laid newspapers on top of urine and feces to create concrete-like papier-mâché three feet thick. Animals dug tunnels underneath it; female dogs had puppies in air spaces created by dresser legs, Lewis said.
"We had to have the fire department come in with jackhammers to help us get puppies out of those air spaces," she added. "The fire department had to supply air paths for us to remove those animals, and she was living in this."
The woman had emphysema, but she wasn't a smoker. She had newspapers on the windows and slept in a chair sitting up because animals used her bed. She was discovered when neighbors found urine running out of the foundation, Lewis said. There were 35 animals inside. The house was demolished.
"It's fairly common nowadays versus back in 1988 for us to receive a complaint and be able to enact an intervention to an animal hoarding case earlier in the process, to be able to help with the intervention for the hoarder as well as the animals before we've had too many animals die as a result of their scenario," Lewis said.
The city has three to five cases a year that might have gone to full hoarding if not for the intervention, Lewis said. Of the eight to 10 full-blown hoarding cases in the last five years, three were prosecuted, a last resort that Lewis said is unlikely to change behavior.
A major help has been a 2003 Fort Wayne ordinance that limits the total number of dogs and cats in a house to seven.
"First of all they're in denial. They think that they're taking good care of the animals," Lewis said. "And secondly, they tend to believe nobody else could take as good a care of them as they do. But in all of these cases you're going to have some who will be totally defiant, the exploitation cases, exploiting their animal situation and their defiance. Those we have to take to prosecution."
Lewis calls one of those violators, now dead, a "pathological animal hoarder" who fought every attempt to take his animals away.
Bob Dinse, Neighborhood Code Enforcement field supervisor, said he knows of three houses the man lived in that had to be demolished because of the hoarding.
"We kind of chased him around town. He would pack up and leave one place and move to another," Dinse said. "His places were so full of stuff you couldn't even walk through them."
Katie Korn of Allen County Adult Protective Services has responded to animal hoarding cases as part of the city's response. She said the majority of hoarders are alert, appear to be mentally capable and understand what they are doing is wrong, but can't stop themselves. Many don't qualify for help from the agency, she said.
"We can't really do anything for somebody like that, as long as they are capable and understand, and a lot of these people do," she said. "We're not looking at people that are really psychotic that are hoarding."
Animal hoarders are from all social and economic backgrounds, Dinse and Lewis said. Eight hoarding cases since 2005 provided by Animal Care and Control were located throughout the city.
And despite conditions intolerable for most people, Lewis does not consider any of them emergencies.
Commonly, the animals have lived in poor conditions for years. They aren't vaccinated, and if taken to the shelter many will develop upper-respiratory infections and be susceptible to diseases carried by other animals, she said. The idea is to persuade hoarders to voluntarily give up some of their animals, Lewis said.
"So, if we can identify an animal for them, get it spayed or neutered, get it vaccinated and then check up on the care they're giving that animal over a longer term, then we have a better chance of meeting the emotional needs of the hoarder while protecting the animals that are in their care."
Patronek, the Boston researcher, said he has seen improvements to address animal hoarding.
Some major animal rights groups have vans to help when large hoarding cases are uncovered, so local shelters aren't overwhelmed, he said.
"And I think, although there certainly can be a great sadness sometimes in watching these individual stories play out," he said, "I think what has helped people understand is the complexity of the situation and that there's human tragedies, there's animal tragedies, there's family tragedies and that all of these need to be dealt with in a comprehensive solution."