Adding horror to heartbreak, about 107 dogs rescued from the streets of hurricane-battered New Orleans didn't make it to happy homes — or even clean, well-stocked animal shelters.
Instead, these dogs had the misfortune of ending up in deplorable conditions with about 400 other dogs in the Every Dog Needs a Home shelter in Gamaliel, Ark.
Discovered by authorities in late October, the scenario was stomach-turning: The estimated 477 dogs, three goats and two cats were steeping in filth. Many were injured, most were aggressive, and almost all of them were cramped. At least six dogs were dead, some still in transport containers.
"They were standing in their own filth, feces, urine," said Humane Society of the United States volunteer Desiree Bender in a report published by the society. "Their paws were burning, bleeding. You couldn't get close to them at first. They were so aggressive. They had not been walked or moved, and they were in such pain."
Bender was referring to several "Katrina dogs" who apparently had not been let out of their cages since being taken from New Orleans by Tammy and William Hanson, who operated the shelter.
Animal rescue experts say that what authorities had stumbled upon was a case of "animal hoarding," in which animals are collected by a pet owner who becomes overwhelmed by the responsibility to care for them. While the pets suffer in unimaginable conditions, the owner sinks into a bizarre denial about the conditions and will continue to accumulate pets. It is thought to be closely linked to mental illness, although it is still a new area of research.
Animal hoarders come from all walks of society, says Gary Patronek, director of the Tufts University Center for Animals and Public Policy and the founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.
Some are the stereotypical "crazy cat ladies," but many are single men, married couples or even the unexpected — veterinarians and psychiatrists.
"That does suggest a mental health component — if someone can counsel people all day or deliver healing animal care, and then go home, like some Jekyll and Hyde," he said.
Even though the stench was overwhelming and dead dogs were strewn about the property, the Arkansas shelter's owners insisted in newspaper reports that they were innocent and were pressured into taking in more animals. They both have been arrested and charged with animal cruelty.
"We were overwhelmed with the new dogs arriving, but we were getting it together," William Hanson said Oct. 24 in an interview with The Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, Ark. "A week from now it would have been a whole different story."
The Hansons, local authorities and the Humane Society have been trying to hammer out a compromise. Currently, the Humane Society is taking care of the dogs, but the Hansons are still technically the animals' owners, said Melissa Rubin, vice president of the society's field and disaster services.
"The dogs are considered property under the law," Rubin said. "We've fixed up the place and taken care of (Tammy's) animals, but they're still hers."
This case is just one of the thousands of reports annually of animal hoarding, said Randy Frost, a psychology professor at Smith College and a hoarding researcher.
Some hoarders are individuals who keep the pets in their own homes, others have animal shelters.
"In some ways, people like this serve a function in the community, in that people will often offload their unwanted animals thinking, now it's taken care of, without really exploring what's happening to the animals," Frost said. "That's how many people with animal hoarding problems develop 'collections' — other people not wanting the animals anymore."
Newspaper reports state that the Hansons refused to let people who dropped off pets to get past a second gate on the property, and that this wasn't Tammy's first run-in with the law. In 2003, she was charged with — but not convicted of — animal cruelty in a similar case in Missouri, the Bulletin reported. And in 1994, she was convicted of impersonating a medical doctor.
Animal hoarders are rarely able to stop collecting animals because the condition is like an addiction, Patronek said. Lenient state laws also can mean little jail time or enforced counseling.
"It's like any other addictive behavior — you can't just say no," he said.
While it's hard to generalize about hoarders, there are some noticeable patterns, Frost said.
"The one characteristic that cuts through all of it is a failure to appreciate the living conditions. There may be some recognition that it's not good, but yet it's not considered dire," he said. And "these folks come to look at these animals as somehow being independent or possessing human-like characteristics … so the person is absolved of taking care of the animal."
This may stem from an erratic childhood upbringing in which the hoarder's only sense of stability or love came from a beloved family pet, Patronek said.
"There's something there to give them unconditional love regardless of what the rest of their world is like. It's an attempt to fulfill all these unmet human needs that can't possibly be filled by these animals. That's why they try to acquire more."
Hoarders usually suffer from a variety of mental illnesses, such as depression. But where things go really awry — and what is hardest to understand — is why the animals are allowed to suffer. Chalk that up to human adaptability, Frost said. The person reaches a breaking point and can no longer care for the animals, but also doesn't want to give up the animals.