CHICAGO, March 13 (UPI) -- Earlier this month authorities found the mummified body of a woman in a clutter-filled St. Louis home.
The 75-year-old homeowner, who hadn't been seen since before Super Bowl weekend, had died and relatives cleaning out her house were shocked when they discovered the badly decomposed body of a woman believed to be her mother wrapped in plastic and garbage bags.
The medical examiner said it appears the remains had been in the house for years. It was impossible to make a positive identification or determine when she died.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch described the inside of the house as filled with old newspapers and magazines and bags of garbage, including a bottle of orange juice that had expired in 2003.
A neighbor called the elderly woman a pack rat -- a hoarder -- who became a loner after the death of her husband in 1989.
Hoarders, it seems, are all over television these days, but they all don't collect possessions -- some hoard animals.
An estimated quarter million animals suffer from animal hoarding annually, The Humane Society of the United States reports.
"The first thing you notice when you have someone hoarding between 70 and 80 cats is not what you see, it's what you smell," volunteer animal rescuer Jennifer Chudy told WSBT-TV, South Bend, Ind.
Some animal hoarders think they are doing the humane thing by caring for animals, but it goes far beyond the stereotypical "crazy lady" with five or six cats. A few unspayed and unneutered dogs and cats can quickly mushroom to scores and a hoarder can be overwhelmed.
Randy Frost, co-author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things," calls it a delusional disorder. Animal hoarders "don't have the recognition that this a problem," he told the Fresno Bee. "They let the animals take over the house. They begin to live under the animals' rules. The house gets filthy."
Keeping animals, or humans, in unsanitary conditions smelling of animal urine and feces is not humane and is unhealthy mentally and physically.
It's not a crime until it gets out of control. The mental health community does not consider animal hoarding a mental illness in its psychological disorders handbook, the DSM, and insurance doesn't cover treatment for it, but some researchers think that's wrong.
"There has been a lot of bewilderment even in the mental health community and we continue to feel that this is a work in progress," Jane N. Nathanson, a counselor for animal caregivers and Massachusetts-based expert on hoarders, told WSBT. "There's almost a high, referred to as a caregivers high that one is deriving from this hoard of animals … since the animals are never truly able to fill that gap in a person's life, there's a sense that, well, maybe more will do it."
Neil Fraser, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, now chief inspector for the Nova Scotia Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Halifax, said on CTV News the SPCA fields about two calls a week on animal hoarders.
"I didn't realize the number of people that have 20, 30, 50 cats in their residence," he told CTV.
My family has two dogs and I had to think long and hard about getting the second one. Many communities, including where I live, restrict the number of pets permitted in a household.
The average cat owner has two cats and the average dog owner, one dog, according to the American Veterinary Association.
Is animal hoarding a type of addiction?
Just read the headlines: "90-year-old charged with 33 counts of animal neglect," "Animal hoarder spent $200K to care for 82 dogs," "Authorities seize 228 dogs and cats in animal hoarding operation."
The executive director of the Nova Scotia SPCA said animal hoarding "is not restricted by social, economic or political stripes … It is everywhere and it is getting worse."
Elaine Birchall, a Canadian social worker who has treated hoarders for years, told CTV animal hoarders have damaged lives. "Their trust, their primary relationship isn't with their own species. It's with another chosen species."
What can be done about it?
Shelters have limited space and are not equipped to take in 40 or 50 dogs and cats in an instant, so many of the animals suffering from untreated illnesses end up euthanized. Rodents, birds, goats, horses and even tigers are victims in the estimated 3,000 to 6,000 cases of animal hoarding reported in the United States each year.
Without intervention, nearly 100 percent of animals hoarders relapse, writes Dan Paden, a senior research associate for PETA in Norfolk, Va.