When love of pets breeds obsession

June 09, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

Three years ago in Chicago, it was a retired nurse sharing a 2-story home with 187 cats.

"The woman lost touch with reality," said Peter F. Poholik, executive director of Chicago's Animal Control unit. "There were so many cats we had to throw nets on them."

A year ago in the Granada Hills section of Los Angeles, it was an elderly woman living in a bedroom so caked with waste from the 35 cats she owned that city employees had to break down the door.

"Ten years before, the same woman had 175 cats," said Lt. Annetta Vernon of the city's animal regulation unit.

They call them animal collectors, people who turn a love of pets into an obsession. Experts say the compulsion afflicts just a tiny number of pet owners whose need to collect animals is often triggered by a personal trauma.

The phenomenon was seen graphically last weekend in a South Baltimore neighborhood, when city police removed at least 85 animals from a roach- and flea-infested row home on Ramsay Street.

Sharing their home with cats, dogs, rabbits, gerbils and hamsters were a 31-year-old widow and her two brothers. According to Baltimore Animal Control, the three took better care of the animals than they did themselves. The family members said they had taken in the animals because they did not want them living as strays on Baltimore streets.

The rationale may have seemed perfectly sensible. But, as in many of these cases, the outcome was unhealthy, unsanitary and nearly unfathomable to many people.

"Most of the people in these cases don't realize how bad it is," Ms. Vernon said. "They don't smell or see the problem."

No hard and fast rules

Most pet owners handle their animals with love and care. But how many animals is too many? When is the line between love and care and neglect crossed?

There are no hard or fast rules, it appears.

In Baltimore City, for instance, residents are legally allowed to have no more than three dogs or cats. But if they have more, they can apply for a kennel license.

"When the welfare of the animal suffers, people cross the line," said Alan Holmes, a founder of Pets On Wheels, a volunteer service that takes animals to visit the elderly. "It's not how many animals you have; it's how you take care of them."

Mr. Holmes said that small signs can point to big problems on the horizon for animal owners.

"There's the person who gets busy and doesn't clean up the yard," he said. "Maybe the person doesn't have enough money to buy dog food, so they squeeze by. Maybe another animal shows up, and they take it in. And, then, all of a sudden, they're overwhelmed."

Money is good measure

Debbie Thomas, executive director of the Maryland SPCA, said money can serve as a good yardstick. She said it costs an average of $7,000 to provide adequate food and medical care for the expected 10-year lifetime of a medium-sized dog.

"It's hard to put a number on how many animals are appropriate," she said. "You have to understand all of their needs like you're planning a family."

Some people have the financial means and the motivation to care for large numbers of animals. Joyce Wetzler, owner of Tailend Kennels, raises some 30 champion Old English sheep dogs on 20 acres in Owings Mills.

"When you cannot see a way to care for the animals, it is a sick obsession," she said.

Dr. James Serpell, a humane ethics and animal welfare professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinarian Medicine, uses this simple guide to spot trouble.

"The tricky point is when you can't bear to shut the door to a new stray animal and when you can't give an animal away," he said. "That's when it really gets out of hand."

Widespread problem

The most notorious cases of animal collection, like the one in South Baltimore, are the most publicized.

"We're beginning to see the incidence of animal collecting is far greater than anyone realized," said Merritt Clifton, editor of a monthly newspaper, Animal People. "There are 200 to 300 cases a year."

In a November 1993 study, Animal People analyzed 101 collecting cases from the preceding five years. The newspaper found that 80 of the collectors purported to be animal rescuers, while the other 21 purported to be breeders.

Forty eight of the individuals had more than 10 cats, while 76 had more than 10 dogs. In all, 3,734 cats and 6,091 dogs were seized.

Nineteen individuals had more than 100 dogs, five had more than 200, three had more than 300 and one had 750. Even more telling, according to Mr. Clifton, was the fact that 718 of the dogs were toy or miniature poodles and 293 were Chihuahuas.

"Among collectors there is a bias to treat small dogs as surrogate children," he said. "But God help the children."

What separates collectors from average pet owners is a fear of death and a sense of isolation brought on by the hoarding of animals, according to Dr. Alan Beck, director of the Center for Human Animal Interaction at Purdue University.

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