Christina Gerken smelled the stench from the street.
When the volunteer from Mishawaka’s Pet Refuge center opened the door of a South Bend house after a slew of neighbors’ complaints of cats overtaking the property, a powerful odor of ammonia and cat urine knocked her backward.
“Just going in there,” Gerken says, “and it hits you like a wall. The wallpaper was stripped from the walls from the urine.”
Gerken and her fellow animal rescue volunteers pulled 26 cats from one home. Of 11 kittens taken out, one died from an upper respiratory ailment commonly found in cats subjected to severe hoarding situations.
“Some cats had been in there for years,” Gerken says. “They peed and pooped all over the place.”
Hardly a home sweet home.
According to the Hoarding Animals Research Consortium, nearly 250,000 animals are victims of animal hoarding each year.
Those animals are subjected to filthy conditions that create severe upper respiratory infections, particularly in kittens,inordinate amounts of fleas and ticks, worms in dogs, ear mites and even cases of collapsed eyes.
Finding new homes
The more the victimized animals are affected by the squalor of living confined in large numbers - especially animals that become withdrawn because of too-minimal human contact - the less adoptable they are in the event they are rescued.
“There are so many animals in these situations,” says Devon Smith of the Michiana Feral Cat Initiative. “They don’t get the proper socialization ... and they are not adoptable.”
Pet Refuge is a no-kill facility that aims to find foster homes for rescued animals with the ultimate goal of adoption.
South Bend Animal Control, which takes in 4,000 dogs and cats annually, practices euthanization.
“There’s always that possibility,” says SBAC supervisor Kim Lucas. “Oftentimes in a hoarding situation, the animals are sick with a very contagious disease. Some are untreatable. Some have not had any vet care their entire life. The disease can spread to the other animals.”
Most diseases found in animals coming out of hoarding situations are not transmittable to humans, Lucas notes.
But this is more about the people who collect cats and dogs in staggering numbers than it is about cats like Carmella, a gorgeous gray and black longhair mix of tabby and calico who begs for love inside a cage at Pet Refuge as she waits to see a veterinarian over a bad case of rotting teeth.
“Within the situations we run into, these are well-meaning people,” Lucas says. “They kind of have their heart in the right place, but they’re doing the wrong thing.”
Filthy conditions cultivated by animal hoarders attract insects and rodents - disease vehicles that can also threaten neighboring households. Often a house must be condemned by the health department because of unlivable conditions.
Yet, most hoarders simply can’t help themselves to stay within the local legal limits of three - dogs, cats, or a combination of both over 6 months of age.