DENVER (CBS4) – One after another, the cages containing cats were off-loaded from a truck at the Denver Dumb Friends League. More than 80.

As of Thursday morning, 19 had been adopted into new homes, a good success rate considering the animals may be sorely in need of human socialization. Those problems are the results of people who may have said they loved animals more than anything. It’s one of the great contradictions of animal hoarders.

A total of 157 cats were found in a home near Powell, Wyo., last week. That many animals would likely overwhelm local shelters, so they were spread out, some taken to Colorado shelters where there’s a relatively high adoption rate. But it hardly solves the problem.

“These are cases that challenge the system almost at every level,” said associate professor Philip Tedeschi of the Insitutute for Human – Animal Connection at D.U.’s Graduate School of Social Work.

Tedeschi has been looking at what triggers collecting or hoarding of animals. Often, it involves mental illness.

“From the animal welfare standpoint collectors, or hoarders are very serious animal abusers,” said Tedeschi. “The causes are not criminal in nature.”

Which makes it tough for our justice system — designed to protect people, not animals — to make the right moves to stop hoarding.

It’s very common for people to identify with the looks of animals. Human children have larger eyes, heads and other attributes that can make them more attractive to us. Domestic animals have that look (my dog’s cuter than yours) that can get them attention and food.

“You take cats for example that have large eyes, have kind of the facial features of a child. Many hoarders and collectors identify with that animal as needing them and needing their protection.”

It’s often the act of “saving” is bigger than the keeping of the animals.

“In fact the response to the animal once it’s been rescued is very different than the initial reaction to help that animal … In many cases it might be a form of ignoring or neglect itself, there’s even been evidence to suggest the individual might not even see the animal.”

That may help explain some of the horrific conditions found in hoarding cases. People suffering almost a delusional level of not being able to recognize that animal is present can ignore the animals’ basic needs. In Wyoming, the cats were locked in filthy rooms. The level of ammonia was so bad, rescuers had to wear respirators.

The owners — an elderly couple (most often hoarders are middle-aged or older woman and frequently Caucasian) may not have been able to recognize the conditions that were right in front of them.

One of the owners told a Montana television reporter, “It’s terrible, they’re all gone.”

The inability to see how bad it is, is common. It’s “One of the reasons you might see one of these incredible landscapes within the household themselves where you might see the carcass of an animal or the skeleton of an animal,” said Tedeschi.

For some the origins of the desire to help animals may be based in their childhoods.

“We have evidence that animals play an important role in kind of role in emotional support. In some cases for example in neglect cases where that animal takes on a primary role in preventing loneliness for a child.”

If they turned that way for comfort in the past, they turn again later in life.

It’s a mystery not likely to be solved with tougher enforcement of laws Tedeschi believes, but broader involvement of mental health in cases of hoarding to prevent repeats.

— Written by Alan Gionet


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