Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/8/2016 (1288 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Last week, animal lovers in Manitoba were disturbed to learn the gruesome details of an animal-hoarding situation discovered at a residence in Winnipeg’s Valley Gardens neighbourhood. News the home’s occupant had failed to provide the basic needs of more than a dozen animals in her care was followed by the even more disconcerting revelation she was the director of a local dog rescue organization called Liferaft.
Animal hoarding is a complex phenomenon, the psychopathology of which is still poorly understood. It has only recently been recognized by the American Psychological Association through its inclusion in the standard reference for mental-health professionals, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
According to the DSM, animal hoarding is characterized by "the accumulation of a large number of animals, and a failure to provide minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation and veterinary care, and to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals and the environment." These criteria tragically illuminate this recent case in Winnipeg: a lack of insight into the well-being of the animals in her care, secrecy about their poor condition and the severity of squalor in the home are all hallmarks of animal hoarding.
It is useful to see animal hoarding as mental illness. This allows us to contend compassionately with the affected individual. Although it may at first seem counterintuitive, an animal hoarder deserves empathy as a fellow human being in need of psychological help. Outrage at the unimaginable suffering of animals should not twist into a simplistic vilification of the person who failed them.
Animal hoarders require nuanced psychotherapy of a specialized type that is scarcely available. Relatively few psychotherapists are trained to deal with object hoarding, and next to none with the ethically murky disorder of animal hoarding. Complicating treatment is the fact animal hoarding in people is often accompanied by an unwillingness to seek or accept help and an inability to reflect upon or understand the magnitude of the problem.
As badly as effective counselling is needed in cases of animal hoarding, it is in fact extremely challenging to provide.
The responses of the members of our province’s animal-rescue community to this tragic story have been varied, with many expressing sympathy for a woman with a long history of providing refuge for animals in need. Although it is wholly appropriate to offer support to an individual whose noble efforts spiralled out of control, we must not lose sight of the real victims of animal hoarding: the animals themselves.
Inside this rescue director’s home, animals were sick, starving and living in their own excrement; a few were confined to soiled kennels; several dead puppies were discovered in varying states of decomposition.
These dogs suffered and some died. Animal hoarding, even if it follows on the heels of good intentions and a kind heart, should not and is not considered exculpatory for the criminal negligence of helpless animals. A psychiatric diagnosis rarely renders someone not legally responsible for their behaviour.
Though one cannot help but feel sorry for a person who clearly lost control of a difficult situation, one must not lose sight of the fact this was a clear case of animal cruelty. Criminal charges may be laid, and perhaps they should be, because the tragedy here is first and foremost about the animals.
In the days following this grim discovery, Manitoba’s Office of the Chief Veterinarian conceded it simply lacks the money and manpower to prevent all such cases of animal abuse. If there can be any silver lining to this tragedy, it just might reside in the clarity and urgency revealed about the need for additional resources in this province, both for the mental health of its citizens and for the care of the animals who live and die among us.
Dr. Jonas Watson is a companion animal veterinarian in Winnipeg, whose caseload consists of much subsidized work for animal rescue groups in Manitoba.