Unlike a regular hoarder, the animal hoarder presents a greater challenge because of the often horrid condition of the animals, which in most states may constitute a felony or misdemeanor for animal cruelty and neglect. It presents more urgent logistical problems: Instead of allowing for a gradual acclimation to the idea of removal, the situation requires the immediate removal of the animals, which can upset the hoarder and render the situation dangerous to law enforcement.
Consequently, it is a most unique and difficult crime scene to process. First, the scene is not static. Everything inside is moving as animals are usually uncaged. Second, the hoarder, feeling threatened with losing his or her animals, can become violent and wild. Third, simply navigating through the crime scene is treacherous, slippery, dark, and full of surprises, such as falling objects, giant cobwebs, and traveling rodents. Everything is drenched in urine, feces, and bodily fluids while decomposition odors from dead pets on scene add to the sensory assault.
Developing and prosecuting these cases is always a challenge. It is critical to take the veterinary forensics obtained from the animals and the environment and causally link them together to establish a cruelty case and to negate possible defenses. In other words, the more it can be shown that the hoarding environment contributed to the injuries, condition, and suffering of the animals, the less the hoarders can argue that their home was a hospice for sick and unwanted animals received in bad shape. Entering the premises with a search warrant should be the norm absent a true surprise (such as knocking on a door to check for a license or other complaint and observing the situation). Properly preparing the warrant provides a solid foundation for the case as those who intersect with the hoarder, such as veterinarians, volunteers, neighbors, postal workers, and utility inspectors, will provide the information needed to establish probable cause for the search as well as populate the trial witness list. Additionally, the scope of the search can be iterated, including computers, smartphones, etc., and additional agencies or resources needed to assist can be included in the document. (Given the instability of the hoarder, proving valid consent to enter after the fact—rather than using a search warrant—will be difficult.)
Most often, the probable cause statements that provide the basis for the search warrant will describe putrid odors, excessive debris, yowling, barking, screeching sounds, rodent and insect infestations of neighboring homes or units, and descriptions of the hoarder as dirty, smelly, covered in sores and “odd.”
These glimpses provide the forensic roadmap to the case as they outline the environment to which the medical conditions of the animals will be connected. It is necessary to relate the injuries to husbandry. Therefore, fighting wounds; discharge from eyes, nose, and skin infections; maggots (age them); feces; ammonia burns on paw pads; long nails; blood; torn ears; mattes; worms, parasites, and fleas; malnutrition; anemia; cannibalism, and more, must be documented and analyzed.
Microchips, tags, tattoos, and data from seized computers will help establish the amount of time each animal resided at the site. Well-intentioned neighbors who brought animals to the hoarder for care can assist with establishing the length of stay for those animals. Food, water, and the absence thereof; drugs; receipts; and necropsies of carcasses are also critical in deciphering mensrea, care habits, and, if applicable, the basis for additional charges such as possession of controlled substances and/or practicing veterinary medicine without a license. Some animals will have diseases, such as cancer, not caused by the hoarder. The issue there will be failing to provide veterinary treatment and allowing the animal to suffer. This attention to forensic detail is important not only to establish that this environment was harmful, neglectful, and cruel but to also negate the hoarder’s assertion that this same scenario is consistent with non-criminal behavior and proper care of the animals.
Assume that the case will go to trial and that years of parallel civil litigation will ensue. Hoarders love to testify, pronounce their love of all creatures, and accuse the authorities of being “out to get them.”
- Hoarders are usually articulate, sympathetic, media-savvy, and very convincing witnesses. They portray themselves as rescuers of the lost and hopeless. They remind the court of how awful pounds can be and the certain fate of animals left there for too long. They explain that their animals, living in a herd, have the same usual colds and coughs found in the best animal shelters, and, most important, they often insist that they received the animals in bad condition. They openly bawl that they are running a hospice and no one else in the world cares enough to do that. Hence developing forensics, establishing timelines, retaining the dead animals, and proving the omission of care are essential to a successful prosecution. One hoarder convicted of felony animal cruelty (sentenced to probation) argued the defense of necessity, in that she was saving 92 cats from euthanasia at the pound. The court refused to provide instruction on the defense of necessity: In California, the legislature had specifically found that it was better to have public and private shelters, rather than private citizens, take in animals, and the court said the defendant could not impose her own will and declare ”necessity” a public policy.
- Defense lawyers will argue that if the animals are fed, there should be no criminal charge at all for abuse or neglect. This was unsuccessfully asserted in a Petaluma cat hoarder case where the prosecutor, pointing to photos of the house and of cats with severe eye infections, retorted: “How can someone let something go so far? How can someone miss that? This is not something that happened overnight and that she was not aware of.” The irony of course is that failing to perceive, even in the face of dead animals, is a key component of the disorder and is also used as a defense! Again, because jurors are sympathetic to the hoarder and feel their time could be better used on a “serious” case, the forensics must be able to refute the “I fed the cat and he only had one good eye when I got him” defense. Often the theatrics work and the hoarder is acquitted—or not charged at all as in a case in Texas (name not released) where the sheriff did not charge a crime but merely extracted a promise from the hoarder to “seek help.”
Since hoarders often win over juries and can slip out from under animal cruelty charges, it is best to also include all other violations that apply. Doing so provides leverage to negotiate a plea bargain as well as a way to force intervention. Therefore, drug charges; practicing veterinary medicine without a license; consumer fraud; pretending to be a charity; nuisance; and violations of fire hazard codes, building codes, housing codes, hazardous hoarding codes, and health and safety codes may all apply and should be charged. In one Los Angeles case, the jury acquitted on animal cruelty but convicted on excess flies and dirt. Getting a conviction is just part of the process. Despite the gruesomeness of the evidence, the extensive number of counts charged, the extreme level of suffering endured, convicted hoarders tend to receive very light sentences as it is always assumed that “they meant well,” or “is not well,” or just “oh well.” If incarceration is imposed, it is usually for a minimal amount of time if not actually suspended.
Clearly, these sentences are a “slap on the wrist” considering the gargantuan efforts expended in managing these cases, though they illustrate the inability of the system to address the problem at its roots.
Though the hoarders remain free, often their animal victims are stuck in cages waiting, sometimes years, for the criminal case to resolve. As the criminal justice system and evidence codes were not written in contemplation of live evidence, there are, with all these cases, extensive agita and costs associated with housing and treating these abuse victims.
As hoarders are extremely litigious and will litigate for years, caring for their animals, paying legal fees, and disruptions in operations can burn out animal welfare staff as well as place the assets of a private corporation at risk. This is a primary reason law enforcement doesn’t want to get involved in the first place and is the hoarder’s most successful and effective tactic to discourage prosecution.
Realizing that hoarders have a 99.9 percent recidivism rate is especially disheartening as stopping the cycle appears to be impossible. Absent a support system coupled with constant monitoring, extensive therapy, and in some cases medication, there is no hope. Because intervention usually occurs after everyone who could support the hoarder is gone, it falls to the community and its available resources to deal with the mess.
Some communities employ task forces comprised of all the stakeholders, such as adult protective services, mental health services, clean-up helpers, and, if the facts warrant, legal guardianship to monitor and support the hoarder. As the hoarder often does not admit to needing help and is uncooperative, the community often redirects its limited resources to someone who truly wants help. Most often, the hoarder simply moves to another jurisdiction and continues as before.