Pet Peeve

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

Occasionally well-educated and articulate, hoarders can also be on the ball in the rest of their lives. In Colorado, Luann Strickland, wife of former state senator and current Adams County Commissioner Ted Strickland, was charged with animal cruelty after investigators in 1991 found she'd collected between 400 and 500 cats and dogs, some of which, investigators said, were suffering from neglect.

One obvious symptom all hoarders seem to share is a distorted view of reality: None can see the squalor that is immediately apparent to outsiders. "We frequently ask, 'Is there anything about your life that you'd like to change?'" says Randall Lockwood, whose Ph.D. in psychology comes in handy in his work as vice president of research and education outreach at the Humane Society of the United States. "And they look around" -- many times at feces piled several feet high and the smell of urine so powerful that visitors must wear masks -- "and say, 'No, not really. Maybe a little more room would be nice.'"

Hoarding touches on several other psychiatric conditions, too, obsessive-compulsive disorder being the most common. But the behavior also contains seeds of attachment disorder (animals are less scary than people), Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (animals' suffering brings attention to the owner), zoophilia (sexual attraction to animals) and addiction behavior.

Scot Dutcher
James Glader
Scot Dutcher
Dr. Keith Roehr
James Glader
Dr. Keith Roehr

That said, the syndrome is starting to leave its own mark in the lexicon of mental disorders. Novoryta lectures regularly on animal hoarding as part of an abnormal-psychology course at Metro State. An article published this June in the American Journal of Psychology reported that scientists at UCLA, using brain scans, had discovered that hoarders metabolize glucose differently than others.

Novoryta says she investigates about ten egregious animal-hoarding cases each year. The problem has become persistent enough that this year the Dumb Friends League hopes to introduce a new bill in the legislature. If passed, it would make hoarding -- tentatively defined as having fifteen or more animals -- an aggravating statute. It would mean that a person convicted of animal neglect or abuse who is also a hoarder could receive a stiffer sentence.

Today, as a professor of animal ecology at Purdue University, Alan Beck tries to keep current on the field he helped identify. "It's one of the most misunderstood areas of our relationship with animals," he admits. "People's excesses always trouble us."


Keith Roehr remembers his first day on the job -- April 3, 1995 -- as a real barn-burner, which, in fact, it was. It was the day Mary Port's Colorado Animal Refuge caught fire in Simla, a plains town east of Denver.

"I feel I was born with a special love for animals," Mary Port told a reporter in 1995. If love could be measured by volume, she clearly was telling the truth.

By the spring of 1995, Port had, by various estimates, between 200 and 600 dogs living with her in her eighty-acre compound in Elbert County. She also had dozens of cats, numerous monkeys, a couple of bears, wolves, geese and a fox. She called her facility the Colorado Animal Refuge.

On Roehr's first day of reporting to work as the assistant state veterinarian in the Department of Agriculture, emergency workers were called to Port's address to respond to a ripping blaze. Much of the place couldn't be saved. Somewhere between fifty and one hundred dogs and a half-dozen monkeys perished in the fire. A handful of mobile homes went up in flames, as well.

Though people had been aware of Port and her personal zoo for some time, the fire and its resulting publicity now made her impossible to ignore. As details of her encampment leaked out, Colorado residents displayed radically divergent opinions. Caught in the spotlight, neighbors claimed that many of her dogs had to be shot by ranchers after escaping her rickety cages. Others, including a few former CAR volunteers, reported appalling conditions within the compound.

Yet many members of the public rallied behind her. Wal-Mart donated food. Close to $40,000 in donations poured in. Volunteers showed up at the facility to help care for the animals.

For its part, the Elbert County Commissioners chose a middle ground. Within days of the fire, they declared CAR a "public nuisance" and "source of filth." All the same, they continually delayed enforcing local ordinances that limited the number of animals Port could hold. One code-compliance officer who'd observed poor treatment of animals at CAR quit over the county's dithering.

The 71-year-old Port was a California resident who said she'd been rescuing animals, mostly on her own dime, since the 1950s. She'd moved to Colorado in the 1970s, she explained, and over the next several years had worked with the North American Wildlife Center in Golden, and had later helped found the Evergreen Animal Protection League. In 1983, her personal animal collection became too much for neighbors, and she moved to Elbert County.

Roehr, a former small-animal vet from Broomfield looking for a career shift, jumped into the fray. He had little idea of what he was getting into. For the next two years, Port would be his personal irritant.

Five days after the fire, a new state statute went into effect. Called the Pet Animal Care Facilities Act, or PACFA, it had been passed in reaction to, among other things, high-profile hoarding cases like Luann Strickland's, in which obsessed humans accumulated hundreds of pets without apparent regard to their well-being. The new law said people could own up fifteen dogs and fifteen cats (and 65 rabbits) without interference, assuming they were in compliance with local zoning rules. For more than fifteen, however, the owner had to be licensed by the state, subject to regular inspections that made sure the animals were being kept in humane conditions.

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