November 26, 2011
Mattie purrs and shuts her eyes for a nap as she feels human fingers nuzzle the top of her head.
The roughly 10-year-old brown and grey tabby is surprisingly calm around people after she was found in an abandoned shed in the Hwy. 401-Islington area along with a 15 other cats in May. She was pregnant at the time and the Etobicoke Humane Society staff brought her and her kittens into the shelter.
“She had seven molars extractions,” said Kathy Phillips, the foster co-ordinator of the EHS, as she held Mattie in her arms. “They were bad infections which affected her temperament and her ability to eat. She had surgery last week. She’s also had upper respiratory problems.”
Cat hoarding is a growing problem not only in the GTA, but throughout Canada.
Animal hoarding involves keeping higher than usual numbers of animals as domestic pets without being able to properly take care of them. Often, the person involved or “the hoarder” will deny their inability to take care of these cats.
In this country alone, there are hundreds of reported cases each year.
“Ontario tends to be a little higher in these statistics because in other provinces, it’s easier to access veterinarians,” Phillips said. “There are regulations in what they can charge to spay and neuter and makes it easier for a normal person who has a pet to care for it properly.”
And for those who cannot care – many of those cats scurry into the open arms of a hoarder.
Roughly 200 to 300 cats end up at the EHS annually because of hoarding. Seth, Buddy and Regis – three black male cats – were also found in the abandoned shed where Mattie was found.
“(Hoarding) breeds health issues and without getting them resolved, they pass them onto other cats, kittens and litters,” Phillips continued. “People believe they’re doing good by providing shelter and food and to a certain extent, they are. One of the worst cases was where cats had access through a dog door and were kept in an environment that was very dirty and diseased.”
Television shows such as Hoarders and Consumed are bringing the issue of overconsumption to the forefront, but when animal hoarding is going on next door, that’s when it hits home.
Case in point: Diane Way, who was charged with animal cruelty after more than 100 cats were found in her Manor Rd. home in April.
Neighbours at the time said Way, a former lawyer and teacher at George Brown College, was a “terrific” woman who had some emotional problems. Way started out with four cats years ago and she couldn’t bear “to get rid of” the kittens when the adults gave birth.
It was only when a pollster canvassing the area for the federal election called police, was it revealed that inside the urine-soaked and faeces-stained North Toronto home how big a hoarding problem this was.
According to Toronto Animal Services, a dwelling unit “no person shall keep in any dwelling unit more than six of any combination of dogs, cats, ferrets and rabbits.”
If they go over that, they can be charged $240. The department received 131 complaints in 2010 and 13 complaints so far this year.
Councillor Josh Matlow continues to push for a more cohesive way for city departments to deal with hoarding. Right now, a bylaw officer cannot bust down doors if a home is believed to be a place of hoarding. An Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals investigator can, but if only there’s proof of animal mistreatment.
An “interdivisional team” comprised of staff from animal services, public health, municipal licensing and standards, police and fire began meeting three months ago. Changes to the Criminal Code provincially might also help the individual departments deal with hoarding because right now there isn’t one authority to handle the hoarding. It could mean allowing by-law officers to access warrants or police to enter homes based on bylaw infractions.
“There’s a real systemic problem with hoarding in North America,” Matlow said. “Toronto should take the lead. We should create a model that works. There needs to be a clear action plan – so if one department is contacted, there’s an immediate trigger to include other agencies, so nobody ever passes the buck.”
Dr. Douglas Saunders, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, said cat hoarding tends to happen because for those with mental illness, looking after animals can have a very positive effect.
“One of the things people do when they have difficulty relating to other people – because animals are so accepting and so forgiving – is they begin to develop relationships with animals,” he said. “Often, if people have been abused in early childhood or very abusive relationships that likely makes them have personality disorders.”
There’s a “must save the world” attitude congruent to hoarding, according to Saunders.
“If you have 13 cats, what’s one more?” he said. “After a while, if you just take on one or two each time, there’s this notion that, incrementally, you can still look after them. Very quickly though, in terms of resources and ability to care for them, you no longer can. And that’s where they lose touch with reality.”
Humane Society of Canada chairman Michael O’Sullivan refuses to let his heart bleed for hoarders.
“I have zero sympathy for the people involved and I have tremendous sympathy for the animals and the charities that are left to clean up their selfish mess,” he said.
“The courts are often sympathetic to people like this and my experience is they tend to re-offend so even if you have an order prohibiting them from having animals, you continually have to watch them to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
O’Sullivan has been helping animals for 40 years in Canada and other countries. He estimates a single person who hoards 60 animals cost taxpayers easily up to $100,000 just as part of the investigation, finding homes for the animals, having them treated and going through the court system.
“That $100,000 could be used to spay and neuter a lot of animals,” he said.
One of the most horrendous cases he’s seen was in Essex County a few years ago where 600 animals were seized from a farm.
“The lady had animals in crammed wire cages, the animals in the barn were in really rough shape. There was a roomful of 300 guinea pigs,” he said. “I met two of her older daughters and I could tell something was wrong. I had a call from a child worker who told me the woman had been keeping (her daughters) in cramped wire cages.”
The Toronto Feral Cat Project, which works in a coalition with other groups and the city to control the feral cat population through trap, neuter and return programs, said hoarding, too, affects them.
“A big part of the feral cat problem is irresponsible pet ownership and abandonment of cats, which also impacts the hoarding,” said the group’s director, Roxanne St. Germain. “In a hoarding situation gone wrong, the animal is better off on the streets.”
And there is a fine line between a rescue worker and a hoarder, she said.
“There are a lot of hoarders who have the ability to reason a bit and try to disguise their behaviour by disguising it as a sanctuary or rescue organization,” she said. “A true rescue group has catches in place to prevent that type of behaviour. I don’t think hoarding is about hurting animals – it just ends up that way.”
Back at the Etobicoke Humane Society, Karen Heaslip, who handles adoptions at the shelter, said cats who have been saved from hoarding situations are often more difficult to adopt.
“Your next door neighbour could be a hoarder,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking. We still have some from our hoarding case from last year because they’re nervous and don’t trust people.”
A solution to reduce the hoarding is implementing mandatory spaying and neutering, O’Sullivan said, as well as keeping cats indoors at all times. Backyard breeders should also have to pay a $10,000 licensing fee.
“It all comes down to an issue of numbers and responsibility,” he said. “It’s very tough on the animals and it’s all because of the irresponsible actions of one person – the hoarder.”
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