The state is finally addressing a disturbing phenomenon.
Photograph by Jennifer Baum
August 2007: Police seize approximately 250 dogs in Buxton living in kennels described as overcrowded and filthy. Many dogs are malnourished and need immediate medical care. The owners face fourteen charges of operating an unlicensed kennel and three counts of animal cruelty.
• August 2007: A local animal control officer finds forty-three cats in a Rockland home following complaints from neighbors about the stench. The resident agrees to give the cats to the local animal shelter.
• January 2008: Sixty-six dogs, four cats, and a bird are seized at a home in Somerville. The owner is charged with five felony counts of animal cruelty.
• July 2008: Forty-six dogs suffering from malnourishment, mange, fleas, and worms are found in cages in a home in New Portland, north of Farmington. The owner had moved the previous fall and left them to a “caretaker.”
This list barely scratches the surface of a phenomenon that is receiving new attention in Maine and putting the state’s director of the Animal Welfare Program, Norma Worley, at the center of increasing controversy. The phenomenon is called animal hoarding, and a series of high-profile cases has raised its visibility across the state. In the year ending in October, Worley’s five animal welfare agents oversaw the seizure of more than 900 animals, 550 of them dogs. The extra expense to care for and feed the animals has put Worley’s office $660,000 over budget. This month the legislature’s Agriculture Committee will take up her proposals to increase pet licensing fees and to double kennel license fees, which help fund the agency.
In 2007 Worley raised the hackles of many pet owners when she pushed through a bill that required anyone who advertises a pet for sale to have a twenty-five-dollar state vendor’s number or become a state-licensed breeder. Some animal owners called it a backdoor attempt to track down and regulate small-time hobbyists who may sell just one litter of puppies or kittens a year. Others, including animal rescue groups and professional breeders, said the change was necessary to flush out unlicensed puppy mills and exploitive hoarders who sell hundreds of animals every year without proper medical care and facilities.
Separating the rise in animal hoarding prosecutions from the public profile of Norma Worley is difficult, because one has led directly to the other. Worley retired to Maine with her husband in 2001 after more than twenty years with the Ventura County Department of Animal Regulation in Camarillo, California, where she rose from a field officer to operations manager, overseeing a staff of fourteen field agents and a kennel operation that handled more than fifteen thousand animals a year. “I came to Maine to relax,” the native Californian says with a laugh. “I had visited in 1995, and Maine was everything I wanted — lots of trees, good people, and no traffic.”
Her life of leisure ended in 2003, when she took over the Animal Welfare Program. She found an agency that had been largely ignored for decades. Agents were untrained, and animal abuse complaints often went unanswered. “Animal control officer training was eight hours of videotapes,” she recalls. “It was all totally unacceptable.”
She quickly brought the agency up to five full-time field agents trained to national standards (a sixth agent concentrates on inspecting kennel facilities). The division began whittling down the backlog of complaints, and animal removals rose from a few dozen to an average of 350 animals a year. As the division’s reputation for responsiveness spread, complaints from the public about animal neglect rose from 483 in 2000 to more than 1,200 in 2008.
“Maine already had some of the best animal welfare laws in the country, but they weren’t being enforced,” Worley says. “Now we’re actually looked upon as a national leader in some areas, such as the Help Fix ME program [which offers vouchers to help pay for spay/neuter operations] and the tax check-off [an automatic donation on state income tax forms]. We were the first state in the country to have animals included in Protection From Abuse orders.”
“There has absolutely been more emphasis on animal abuse and neglect enforcement in recent years,” declares Susanna Richer, of Dogs Deserve Better, a Portland-based group that focuses on dogs who are kept outdoors year-round. “Norma Worley is one of the best things to happen to animal welfare in Maine,” she says. “I think she’s doing a fabulous job.”
That’s not a universal opinion. Bowdoinham attorney Andrews Campbell has developed a niche specialty as the go-to lawyer for defendants in animal hoarding cases. He criticizes what he perceives as overly aggressive enforcement of animal welfare regulations, as well as the methods used to get search warrants and seize animals from their owners. In late October he argued before the Maine Supreme Court that the search warrant used to enter the property of Fern Clark in Somerville was inadequate. Animal welfare agents seized more than sixty animals in the raid, including nine dogs judged to be so ill they were rushed to emergency clinics in Portland and Lewiston. Two dead dogs were found in a food freezer.
Hoarders have a unique tunnel vision that convinces them that they are the only people who can properly care for the animals, and Maine has a particular attraction for these personality types, Worley says. “Maine is a big state, and it’s easy to hide,” she explains. “We have [hoarders] coming here from Massachusetts and New York who believe they can move in and drop out of sight with their animals.”
Worley has already seen it several times, most recently with the case in Buxton involving some 250 dogs. “That family had been living in Massachusetts, where they were on the verge of being prosecuted for having an illegal pet store,” Worley notes. “In one of our cat cases, the woman admitted in court she thought she could come to Maine and hide.”
Animal hoarding has many aspects of a mania, and in fact many hoarders show signs of personality disorders, anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorders, according to Gary Patronek, a doctor of veterinary medicine who teaches at Tufts University in Massachusetts. Patronek founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium a decade ago. His research shows that 73 percent of hoarders are women. Almost half are sixty or older, and elderly hoarders often show signs of dementia. The most common trait is addictive personality disorder, on a par with alcoholism and drug abuse.
“Hoarders absolutely will go back to hoarding again if they’re allowed to,” Worley says. “It’s a mental illness.” Yet nationally, only one in four hoarders is referred for psychological assessment, and only 5 percent are ordered to never again keep pets, according to Patronek’s statistics.
Because of the many mental health and age-related aspects of animal hoarding, two years ago Worley helped create a cross-reporting program that encourages Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) case workers to bring in Animal Welfare agents if they see animal neglect or abuse among their clients. “We had a case just recently in Aroostook County where we worked with DHHS to help a senior citizen who had more than sixty cats in a single-wide trailer,” Worley recalls. Many of the felines were so sick they had to be euthanized, “but we’re holding her favorite cat for her for when she moves into assisted living,” Worley says with compassion.
Hoarders concentrate so fiercely on what they perceive to be the best care for their animals “that they completely ignore everything else,” Worley says. “If something breaks, they don’t try to fix it. I mean, 32 percent of hoarders’ homes don’t have a working bathroom. It’s not at all unusual for the hoarder’s bed to be covered with animal and, sometimes, human feces. Quite often local code enforcement offices, health departments, and fire safety officials get involved. It’s not unusual for the house to be condemned and torn down afterwards.”
You never know what’s going on behind closed doors,” offers Tracy Sala, executive director of the Humane Society of Knox County. She recalls a recent case in Warren where an elderly man had long been known as someone who loved cats, but residents didn’t know just how much until his home caught fire. “The fire department was pouring water through the windows and cats were washing out the doors,” Sala says. “We’ve taken in more than thirty cats from that case, and more are still being caught at the house.”
Sala says her shelter has handled three animal hoarding cases in the last two years, and one result is the more than one hundred cats the shelter still houses. Sala, too, says hoarders tend to move rather than improve. She notes that the Rockland woman with forty-three cats “came from another town where she had a problem and has since moved to another town. Hoarders don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, and there’s really nothing stopping them from doing it again. They really believe they’re doing right by their animals. After walking into that environment several times recently, I believe they have to be deluded on a grand scale to live in that squalor without thinking anything is wrong.”
The animals usually end up in the local shelter, where they can pose sudden and massive problems. Sala has had to mount special donation drives for supplies and money. Only those individual animals that are too sick to save are euthanized, according to Worley and local shelter managers such as Sala. The rest are put up for adoption.
“We’re under the legal obligation to get the animals out of these situations,” Worley adds, “but the costs involved can be phenomenal. We have to treat them for disease, and then hold them all while the cases go through court, which can take two years or more.” The state doesn’t have its own shelter, so animals are boarded out to local kennels and shelters.
The cases also take a psychological toll on shelter workers and volunteers. “Just when you think you’re making some strides in helping homeless animals, you get all these new ones from a hoarding case,” Sala explains. “You deal with it and you do your best, but sometimes it feels like there’s no end in sight.”
Worley knows the feeling. “I don’t see the problem tapering off for the next ten years,” she predicts. “I know I won’t be here. Maine is a big state, and it’ll be a long time before we can relax.”
- By: Jeff Clark