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Ryan Johnson, Published July 10 2013

Why do people hoard animals? Local expert says early intervention important

Warsaw, N.D. - A man arrested here Tuesday after some of the 14 dogs that lived on his farm attacked someone early Sunday could show animal hoarding tendencies and other possible underlying mental health issues, the state’s only psychologist specializing in compulsive hoarding said.

Fargo psychologist Renae Reinardy said details in news accounts of the incident at Pete Grzeskowiak’s farm, including that he began to argue with deputies over which dogs should be euthanized and then stabbed one of the dogs in the neck with a steak knife, fits with what can happen when people who are hoarders are confronted after the situation gets out of hand.

“With possessions, people will sometimes become really violent,” she said. “Even sweet little old ladies sometimes have been known to attack law enforcement or moving companies in these types of situations.”

Reinardy said it’s an example of why early intervention is important with people who suffer from compulsive hoarding, a disorder that affects an estimated 3 million to 10 million Americans.

She said it also shows that while many in the community apparently knew about the large number of dogs at Grzeskowiak’s farm, law enforcement’s hands were “tied” when it came to stepping in before the hungry dogs reportedly attacked 19-year-old John Munoz while he walked down a country road.

It’s not uncommon for Fargo Cass Public Health to get a complaint from a neighbor or police officer about an animal hoarding situation, said Environmental Health Practitioner Miles Schacher. In many cases, however, they have little to no legal standing to force a hoarder to get help.

There are limited exceptions, when officials can force a hoarder to clean up their home or remove animals and children that are in a dangerous situation.

A Fargo city ordinance prohibits having more than six dogs and cats in one residence, and dogs determined to be dangerous can be seized.

Landlords can do something about a renter who is hoarding on their property, said Cass County Adult Service Unit Supervisor DeLana Duffy-Aziz said, but Cass Social Services can’t enter a private residence uninvited, she said.

Reinardy said research into animal hoarding, a type of compulsive hoarding, started increasing in the late 1990s. It’s now believed there are 3,000 to 5,000 such cases in the country each year, with as many as 250,000 animal victims.

She said there are three main categories of animal hoarders: the “rescuer hoarder” who takes in strays; those with sociopathic tendencies who lack any guilt or remorse over the harm to animals from their hoarding; and the “overwhelmed caregiver” who had good intentions but lost control of a growing population of animals.

“No matter what type of animal hoarder they are, people just end up getting completely overwhelmed,” she said. “Depending on their level of insight, sometimes people just totally lack that insight and they don’t even see that their animals are starving or violent.”

Shelter Manager Heather Clyde said she’s been involved with five cat hoarding cases in her six years with the Humane Society of Fargo-Moorhead. Fifteen to 40 cats were involved in each case, including a man who had 26 cats living in his Winnebago.

The pets often show signs of malnourishment, and she said one owner was trying to keep her cats alive by feeding them rice because she couldn’t afford cat food. Clyde said beyond the physical afflictions, hoarded animals often carry deep emotional scars from an upbringing in squalor with little human contact.

“We have two cats that we’ve had for a year and a half now, and those two cats are terrified even now,” she said.

Clyde said it’s easy to get out of hand, especially with cats.

“That’s usually when the problem comes to someone’s attention, whether that’s law enforcement or we get a call, because someone is noticing that the place is overrun with cats everywhere or there’s a weird smell coming from the place,” she said. “By that time, it’s a little late.”

Reinardy said that’s why it’s so important for the general public to intervene if they have a friend or family member who displays tendencies of animal hoarding.

“I think a lot of it comes down to people just being responsible for themselves and for their families because it can’t always be the social service agencies that are stepping in,” she said. “There’s just no way of knowing what’s going on at people’s farms or behind closed doors.”

Follow-up with hoarders to prevent them from slipping back to their old ways is also important, she said.

“Removing the animals is not treatment for animal hoarding. Just like with possession hoarding you can’t treat it by just going in and cleaning their house,” she said. “The analogy I use is it’s like treating alcoholism by walking in and pulling somebody out of a bar. That isn’t going to fix the problem.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587