There was almost no furniture in the entire house. This was unusual for hoarder houses, which are usually packed full of stuff or just of trash. But she was a somewhat unusual hoarder, with only 26 cats and one dog. We stood in the living room and talked to her about her animals. We could see into the kitchen, which was swarming with cats, on the counters, poking out of empty cabinets, sleeping in the sink. The woman we were talking to told us how she loved them but how her son had called us in because he was concerned about them and about her.
While we talked, her dog urinated in the middle of the empty floor in front of us. She didn't notice. The room contained a couch and an entertainment center and absolutely nothing else: the entertainment center had a few knicknacks but was mostly empty. On it sat the box of flea preventative that our team had given her months ago. It was unopened.
And everywhere was the smell of urine. I could barely stand to be in the room, but I could do so without a mask, which made it one of the cleaner hoarder homes. All I could think of was getting outside and getting a breath of air that was not thick with ammonia, so thick that my eyes watered and I could not fill my lungs. But this woman lived here. She could no longer smell it. She no longer noticed or cared when her dog urinated in the middle of the floor. And I remembered another time I had smelled this smell: at a cat shelter in another part of the country.
That was in rural New England. The two women running the place called it a shelter, but I knew it was really a hoarding house. They did not know how many cats they had. They would find cats unexpectedly dead, because no one had noticed for days or weeks when they were sick. And everywhere the smell. Not as bad as in the hoarder house in the big city, but bad enough to scare away adopters. Yes, they opened their doors to adopters. They advertised their cats for adoption. But adopters who brought these cats home risked bringing a sick animal into their lives, or contracting ringworm from their new pet, a story I heard unfold at least once from this shelter. The women running the shelter grilled every potential adopter and turned many away for not being good enough for their cats. And they continued taking in more cats — if they turned them away, they said, what would happen to them? But could another fate have been worse than dying trapped in that place, where adopters did not want to come, and were turned away when they did? Was this place a shelter or a hoarding house or some weird combination of the two?
But the combination isn’t weird. It happens all the time. I saw it again at a shelter in the deep South. This shelter proclaimed that they would kill no animals, and they did not, even the dogs who had been there for seven or eight years, that had gone insane and were unadoptable. These dogs were loving with the shelter staff, but when I came within a dozen yards of their enclosures they would erupt in terrifying, violent barking. I had no doubt that if I entered their enclosures I would be badly bitten. One dog was not aggressive, but hardly seemed to see the rest of the world any longer: he spun in circles around his enclosure, up on the roof of his dog house, down on the ground again, paws hitting exactly the same point every time. Over and over and over.
And the dogs who were not yet insane were not moving out fast enough. I could see their fates. This shelter was so overwhelmed with the number of dogs they were managing that they did not have the energy to keep these dogs mentally healthy, or to do the extra legwork it takes to adopt out a large dog in an area like the South which is so overpopulated with them. These dogs needed transfers to different shelters, they needed adoption events, they needed foster care to get a break from the shelter. They got none of those things. And as soon as a cage opened, it was filled with a new dog. This shelter actually transferred dogs in from outside their community. If they had not done so, they told us, what would have happened to those dogs? Where else could they have gone?
When I started to look, I started to see it everywhere. How many shelters provided enough space for their cats? Even the shelters that have big condo-style cages for cats in their adoption areas, with enough space to move around and a separate area for the litter box, even these shelters still have cats in tiny three by three foot cages in the back, in the sick rooms, in the intake and holding rooms: not enough room for a cat to stretch out, not enough room to get away from the litter box to eat. Even these shelters tell me of course they can’t use that antibiotic, because it must be given twice a day, and they don’t have time to visit so many sick animals twice a day, so they must use the one that doesn’t work as well but can be given less often. Even these shelters say, Of course we would love to have dog play groups, but we don’t have enough trained staff to manage them.
So what is sheltering and what is hoarding? A good shelter provides a needed service: a brief place for an animal to stop on its road to a new home, some medical care, some help finding that home. Keeping that stay brief is the hard part. It is, in fact, a very hard part, balancing keeping the animal healthy (it’s hard and potentially unethical to adopt out a sick pet), finding the right adopter (for that pit bull type dog that looks like row upon row of others in your shelter, for that orange cat that doesn’t come to the front of his cage to meet adopters), keeping them mentally healthy while you’re at it (play groups, training, just plain time out of the cage and time with humans).
And keeping large animals like dogs takes space. In fact, keeping a small animal like a cat takes space, much more space than we as a sheltering community realized until recently. Sheltering can so easily start to slip down the spectrum. It is a spectrum! Many shelters, real shelters, shelters that have legal non-profit status with the government, shelters that don’t smell like urine and have lots of volunteers and get grants and have spay-neuter services, yes these shelters too can fail to provide minimally acceptable care for their animals. Simply because they have too many.
What’s the answer? In one sense, it is simple. Call in someone from the outside, who can see your facility with unbiased eyes. Someone who doesn’t have to answer all the calls for pets that need homes. Someone who can look at the pets that you have and tell you how you are keeping them. This person must know how to assess humane capacity, so it can’t be just any animal lover. They should be able to look at your facility, know how much space is appropriate for animals of different sizes, and calculate how much space you have for each animal. Then they must look at your staffing, and calculate how much staff time you have for each animal. Not just to feed and clean them, but to spend time with them. To notice when they are sick: to look at them every day, carefully, and think about what they need and how to get it to them. To not be running ragged putting out fires, but to be able to plan adoption events, and to notice that dog that’s been here for months and needs special work to get out.
When this person tells you how many animals you can care for humanely, not just how many you can fit in your facility, you will be shocked. You will deny it. You will say that’s half what you can handle. You will point to your records: you’ve had many more than that for years! But they will insist: yes, you’ve had more. But you haven’t had them humanely. You have had a toe on the road to the hoarder end of the spectrum.
So in another sense, it is not at all simple. Because embracing humane capacity means accepting that you have not done as well in the past for your animals as you could. It means not beating yourself up over this, not feeling guilty, not indulging in denial. It means moving forward: it means promising yourself and the animals in your care that you will do better in the future.
And even harder, it means saying no. No to the animals that need a place. No to the people who just can’t find a home for their pit bull type dog but have to move, and the new place does not take animals. No to the mom whose dog bit her child but is such a loving dog with adults. No to the stray cat who is so sweet. Surely you can find homes for these animals? If you don’t, who will?
But that is the central point: you can’t do it humanely, but you try anyway, you will add to the problem. Sheltering is where it is because shelters try to do too much, and if a shelter’s doors are open, animals will pass through them. Shelters which have put waiting lists into place have found that many people do manage to find homes for their animals, if they have to keep trying. Some don’t, and they wait until a place opens. Will these people abandon their animals on the street? Will they take them to a quiet spot and shoot them between the eyes? Very, very rarely does this happen: when it does, it is big news. But you know what? Doing that is illegal. And that is where we need to prevent it: with laws, and enforcement of them. Not by saying, Okay, I will take over your responsibility for you.
That is what we as a society must embrace: responsibility. Not taking in animals that we can’t care for appropriately. And not accepting someone else’s responsibility. Being strong, and doing only what we can, and no more. Because by doing more, we actually do less.