Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Animal Hoarders Need Psychiatric Help Not Jail Time

Note: I wrote this post nearly a year ago, and it appeared as an opinion piece in The Sunday Gazette during May of 2005. I re-publish here because I still have a strong interest in the subject and want to write some follow-up posts, which won't make a lot of sense unless you have read this post first.

If you use drugs, then you should move to Fulton County because if you are arrested for drug use District Attorney Louise Sira will not send you to jail. However, if you are mentally ill, then you should not move to Fulton County because recent comments by Ms. Sira suggest that you should go to jail.

I applaud Sira’s decision to offer treatment rather than jail to a large number of drug users who were arrested last week in a massive raid. Certainly, jail is not the solution for most drug users. As a conservative with increasingly libertarian leanings, I believe that prison time should be primarily for violent offenders.

I strongly disagree, however, with Sira’s statements which suggested that mentally ill people belong in jail. They were made in the context of Fulton County’s recent “summit” on animal hoarding. During the summit, Sira stated that people who collect and neglect large numbers of animals are mentally ill. Few people, including myself, would argue with this statement, and the recognition that animal collectors are mentally ill was a positive aspect of this conference. However, Sira also stated that animal collectors need jail time.

Sira’s comments are baffling. First, if a person is mentally ill, then the proper place for treatment is in a mental health facility not a jail. Treatment for mentally ill people is inadequate under normal conditions, in jail it‘s even worse. And, if jail is not appropriate for drug users, neither is it appropriate for animal hoarders.

Secondly, if animal hoarding is a mental illness, then why didn’t the summit include mental health professionals who specialize in the treatment of animal hoarding. If the focus of the summit was deterrence, then mental health professionals should have taken center stage, not law enforcement and SPCA officials. None of these are truly involved in deterrence. SPCA SWAT style raids on area farms may be necessary to rescue animals from abysmal conditions, but at best, to revise an old proverb, it is only locking the barn door after the horse has been neglected.

Thirdly, the comments on mental illness and animal hoarding by Sira and other Fulton County officials were both misleading and inadequate. For example, they did not mention that without treatment animal hoarders have an almost 100% recidivism rate. The reason for this recidivism rate is that animal hoarding is a compulsion, a compulsion as powerful as the addiction of those drug users that Sira wants to keep out of jail.

Sira claims that people hoard animals because they have lost control over their lives and regain a sense of control by controlling large numbers of animals. While I am not a mental health professional, I have researched Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder a lot over the years. One compulsion that some people with OCD have is the compulsion to hoard. Often they hoard inanimate objects. These things may be valueless or in some cases even harmful. People have been known to fill their houses with so much detritus that they can hardly move about. The professional websites and journals that I have read suggest OCD may be the cause of animal hoarding.

Only one journal I read indicated that a need for control might be part of the cause. As the owner of one horse and two goats, I can tell you that you don’t gain a sense of control by owning animals. Trying to keep up with the two ton annual output from the south end of a north going horse makes one quickly realize that the animals are in control, not the other way around.

Sira’s theory for why people collect and neglect large numbers of animals better supports why people own one or two animals and then abuse them, a situation addressed by Buster’s Law. While the results may be the same, animal abuse and animal neglect are not the same; neither are their causes and cures. This is an important distinction that must be maintained.

According to Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine 76% of animal hoarders are women and 46% are over 60 years old. OCD studies of hoarders show a similar gender and age gap. Research shows that people who hoard and neglect animals, often neglect themselves and live in the same squalor their animals do. These facts suggest that a summit on animal hoarding might also benefit from having representatives attend from social service agencies and agencies which serve the elderly.

If a summit is the top of a mountain, then the Fulton County Summit did not get far from the base. For a true summit on animal hoarding, I recommend the Orange County, California conference held in 2004 and open to the public (unlike Fulton County’s). It had to be held twice because it sparked so much interest. Three of the four main speakers were mental health officials who specialize in animal hoarding. This is as it should be because if animal hoarding is to end, it has to be stopped at its source, which is the highly complex but wrongly wired brains of some members of that other species known as man.

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