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Pet Peeve

If one schnauzer is nice, what's wrong with 150?

Novoryta, meanwhile, videotaped the scene. She trained her camera on one dog that had been freshly killed. Several other dogs were just starting to eat the body. Another lay with its intestines spilled out of its abdomen.

The roundup took all day. Eventually, using a combination of nets, leashes and sodium pentobarbital meatballs, the team managed to catch and contain all but about four or five of the animals. They placed them in kennels stacked on top of each other. The final tally: 146 dogs, four lovebirds, three doves, two chickens and one cat.

At some point during the day, the Schaibles arrived on the scene. Fred spoke with the investigators while Brenda sat in the car, which was packed with several more dogs. Novoryta informed him that she and her colleagues were impounding the dogs, and that, though many could no doubt be adopted out to new homes, others seemed maladapted and would have to be euthanized.

Schaible, reportedly a retired dentist, seemed befuddled. He began to cry. Novoryta asked him why he had so many animals. His wife, he answered, liked dogs. Still, Fred agreed to sign over all of the animals to state custody. Later, Fred and Brenda were charged with four counts of animal cruelty.

The Schaibles did not return numerous phone calls for this story.


THE SCIENTIST

Twenty-five years ago, Alan M. Beck was working at the New York City Department of Health as a researcher. Over the years, he had noticed that an unusually high number of cases that came through the department -- close to one in five -- involved animals. Beck started talking about it to a staff epidemiologist. The epidemiologist, in turn, mentioned it to one of his graduate students who happened to be looking for a thesis topic. The group decided to investigate together.

The result of their collaboration was a 1981 paper titled "Multiple Ownership of Animals in New York City." It was the first research effort published on the subject of animal hoarding -- extreme animal collectors. The group managed to interview 34 people who'd come to the attention of authorities, usually through city inspections or reports from neighbors.

The study criteria required the subjects to have owned at least ten animals; however, the average number of pets among participants was actually much higher: 34 cats, 23 dogs. And while those two species made up the majority of the pets, the animals Beck and his colleagues discovered being kept in large numbers were by no means restricted to felines and canines. The researchers discovered alligators, lizards, snakes, rabbits, turtles, a turkey and several ducks. One case featured more than fifty pigeons flying freely around an apartment.

As they compiled their results, the scientists uncovered several surprises. Prior to their study, for instance, it was largely assumed that most animal hoarders were dotty old ladies who had lost their grip on reality many years back. Yet Beck found that hoarders actually were spread fairly evenly among socioeconomic groups.

The scientists were also amazed at the devotion and depth of feeling the collectors had for their numerous animals. "One woman kept scrapbooks of her animals' lives," Beck recounted, "celebrated their birthdays and anniversaries and conducted special burials for them. Another elderly woman, unable to bear separation from her dead cats, eviscerated them and dried them on her fire escape. The 'cat boards' were kept in cupboards throughout her apartment. One owner preserved the animals by stuffing them."

Subsequent research on hoarders, although still in its infancy, has confirmed Beck and his colleagues' findings. Much of the work has been done by the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, founded in 1997 by a Tufts University professor and veterinarian named Gary Patronek. Through his work, a general profile has emerged.

Most animal hoarders -- about two-thirds -- are female; their average age is 63. An unusually large percentage of hoarders are from the "caretaker" professions -- teachers, nurses, doctors and so on -- a fact that always seems to catch emergency workers, caretakers themselves, off guard.

In early summer 2003, Denver social workers removed a thirteen-year-old mentally handicapped girl from the home of Mary Flanagan. The two were not living alone. Flanagan, a fifty-year-old registered nurse, also had 28 dogs and cats living in the house -- although "living" is not an accurate term. A third of the animals were dead -- still in their cages, decomposing.

Demographically, Flanagan was not an unusual pet hoarder. Seventy percent of animal collectors are single, and researchers often trace their animal-collecting habit back to the significant event that left them alone, typically a divorce or death. Eighty percent of animal hoarders also compulsively collect other objects. (Flanagan's home was filled with five-foot-high stacks of trash.) Sixty-five percent hoard cats; 60 percent collect dogs. The overlap is caused by those who collect both.

The question that continues to plague researchers who study the interaction between humans and animals is, of course, why? Can love really be so blind?

No one has found an answer. For starters, surrounding yourself with a lot of animals isn't always bad. "Everybody's different," notes Novoryta. "There are people out there who can't handle five animals. But some can handle twenty."

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