by Alan Bender
If you care about someone who might be an animal hoarder – or their pets – please contact:
firstname.lastname@example.org or call 1-877-698-7387
Local Bird Shelter
The broken-down, decrepit store-front building sat at the corner of a busy intersection. Shingles were hanging loosely from the roof, some having already tumbled onto the parking lot. Several large cages had been pushed outside and placed on the left of the glass double-doors, awaiting—what? Power-cleaning? Selling? Some were no longer fit to be used.
Floor-to-ceiling, soiled windows protected the front of the building. Months of dust and street dirt accumulated on the table; cigarette butts overflowed from the worn containers and spilled onto the cement.
The entire structure was in disrepair. I entered the front doors with some trepidation. If the outside were in this condition, what would the inside be like?
Clouds of dust, smoke, dander and debris hung in the air, a sort of smog, visible within the beams of light pouring through the windows. Row after row of aged, neglected, maltreated cages, bearing little resemblance to their original states, lined the walls of the two rooms. In the larger room, they filled in every open spot. Their powder-coatings had long since been carelessly scraped down to the metal with little left of the original finishes. Painted wire cages, chewed to the metal—many tied to keep them together—sat in the smaller of the two rooms, squeezed in, here and there, on tables or stands, filling in every nook and cranny.
Broken, missing tile, stripped, pocked wood and ragged, filthy carpet remnants—all with edges raised, ready to ensnare the unsuspecting visitor—attached themselves to the floors.
Large, improvised heavy-duty wire enclosures held multiple cockatoos and macaws. A huge macaw-sized wooden play stand sat in the middle of the smaller room, while a gazebo of sorts took up space in the center of the larger room. Both the play stand and the black, wrought iron gazebo were green and white with feces which had long been ignored. Mouse holes lined the baseboards and dotted the walls from floor to ceiling. Mouse feces littered the floors. Roaches everywhere, in and out of the cages. Flies, grain moths, all manner of insects attacked the food, bagged and in cages. Garbage cans packed with soiled rags and reeking of the odor that comes from remaining unattended for days on end attracted insects, flies, and mice. Dead mice wherever you looked, on the floor, in the garbage cans, behind the cages and tables and live ones scurrying around the rooms. The owner’s large dog had made his contribution as well. The entire facility—squalid and unsanitary.
The 150 occupants—macaws, cockatoos, African Greys, mid-sized birds, cockatiels, parakeets—in various stages of illness and despair. Eight or nine cockatiels jammed into a wire cage not roomy enough for even a single parakeet, fighting amongst themselves for space in the cramped quarters. A large, make-shift chicken wire enclosure with sharp edges projecting inside and out, with at least 25 cockatiels in it, perched on sticks positioned overtop a table filled with polluted food and water containers. Birds picked nearly completely, sores on their bodies from disease and self-mutilation, lying down because they were too sick to stand anymore. Broken crocks and food cups, often containing little to no food or water. All contaminated. In one corner, a chicken-wire flight cage filled with finches, dirty and in disrepair. Cages, caked with food and feces, awaiting power-washing or hand-cleaning that rarely materialized.
The never-ending squawks, screams, and cries from the birds, mostly the cockatoos and macaws, but from some of the mid-sized birds as well. All this, setting up a din that could not be spoken over. Deafening noise—heard up and down the street. Ear plugs did little to mute it. I coughed and choked as the dust and dirt from the floor and surfaces and cage substrate shavings drifted through the air, sent up by brooms and mops which did little to accomplish their purpose. Masks helped, but it was too hot to wear them and they frightened the birds.
No toys, no stimulation, no veterinary care unless someone else picked up the bird, drove quite a distance to an avian veterinarian and paid for the visit out of his own pocket. Fresh foods were served rarely, and only when someone else brought them in and distributed them.
The woman tending this shelter labored under the delusion that only she could provide for these birds. She spent her days worrying about money, asking everyone to donate and fussing over everything. She alternated nap periods with constant smoking, inside and outside the shelter. She rarely spent time with the birds she professed to love.
Poor me. Why can’t you just let me be me? Why can’t people see how sick I am? These birds need so much love and attention and I can’t do it all myself. I need money. Now more birds are coming in! Where am I going to put them? Everybody wants me to send them off, adopt them out. I can’t let them go to just anyone! Nobody understands me…they all want to shut me down…but what will happen to them?
There was little help from adult volunteers because her mental illnesses made her so difficult to deal with, so most gave up or were chased away by her. Her youth volunteers, doing community work that summer—for which they were compensated—exerted themselves as little as possible, for as short a time as they could get away with.
Astoundingly, at the same time, she was not only boarding others’ birds, she was breeding birds! She encouraged people to buy the babies rather than adopt an adult bird.
She paid little heed to her responsibilities. Her heart was in the right place, originally, when she began taking in birds. But she had no boundaries, no controls. The space was limited, and she did not define a maximum number of birds the building could effectively house, nor did she set limits on the number of birds she could afford—both in terms of finances and time—to keep. To make matters worse, there was always a reason she would not adopt them out. They were too old. Too sick. They were personal pets. The potential adopters were not good enough. Knowledgeable enough. Clean enough. Nice enough. Anything enough. They weren’t rich enough—never mind that she charged outrageously high adoption fees, pricing the birds out of adoptability. Standards for adoption became unrealistic just to prevent birds from leaving; thus, she became a hoarder. “How can I be a hoarder,” she would cry, sobbing and hysterical, “when I run a shelter!”
Non-Profit Rescue Set-up
Her board was useless. She would fire people from the board for arguing with her and replace them with people she thought would do everything her way. They tried, albeit not all that hard, to reason with her, but to no avail. They never became firm enough with her because she would immediately lapse into histrionics, crying and carrying on until everyone gave up. She controlled everyone with emotional blackmail. I attended one board meeting and was told the meetings were always like this.
To look at her, one would have to wonder how she got into that state. Her health was extremely poor. She had had several surgeries for hernias, yet returned each time to the place and the work—lifting, pushing, standing for hours on end, eventually breaking her stitches again and returning right back to her previous condition. A heavy smoker, she would not admit that the smoke, dust, and dander had compromised her—or the birds’—respiratory system; she was in denial about nearly every aspect of her life. She was always exhausted. She had opportunities to rest, offered to her by friends and volunteers, but she rejected them to gain sympathy. Extremely thin, she did not eat properly, nor did she sleep well. Since she lived on the site, she had no bathing facilities, only a powder room. Her hygiene left much to be desired. But, of course, none of this was her fault.
I volunteered for this woman for four months. In the beginning, I was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then I began to make suggestions for improvement, finding solutions to problems she refused to acknowledge even existed. I was the enemy, against her just like everyone else, and trying to tell her what to do. Her mood swings were extreme, and I suspected she was severely bi-polar in addition to being paranoid and delusional. In the early weeks, because I was of use to her, she allowed me to take home three female cockatiels which were all near death. Immediate and long-term veterinary care was able to save them. One passed away from cancer earlier this year. One of the remaining two is crippled, blind, and no longer unable to navigate well enough to fly more than a few feet because of her extensive cataracts. The third, and worst of all, was able to make a nearly complete recovery after over two years of frequent veterinary visits—his treatments and medications, and my nursing care. She will always have issues, particularly with her integument, but is remarkably healthy considering what she’s been through.
After several particularly stressful work sessions there, I decided it was time to leave.
Rescuing the “Rescues”
It would be nearly two years before I became involved with this shelter again. Conditions at the shelter went from bad to worse. She became unable to provide even the most basic needs of husbandry—food, water, and cleanliness. I spoke with another volunteer and learned that birds had died, many were depressed, some nearly moribund, having given up. Everything, every space, was filthy—even the birds. Some birds were without food and water and others hadn’t had their food or water changed in days. It is impossible for one or two people to adequately care for 150 or more birds.
After many phone calls and emails from the shelter’s neighbors, visitors and concerned bird people in the community about the conditions there, the Humane Society of the United States, along with the local Humane Society, finally stepped in. After considerable planning and detailed preparation, the HSUS raided the shelter and seized all of the birds in a whirlwind, surprise raid.
Wearing masks and gloves, HS workers, veterinarians and volunteers entered the facility and found the conditions shocking. Dirt: A layer of it on everything, including the birds, in some places an inch thick. Mice. Dead ones everywhere on the floors, and live ones fearlessly dodging the bodies as they scurried around the rooms. Bags of poor-quality seed infested with grain moths. Birds. Some moribund and near death. Some sitting on their perches with heads hanging low. Some picked within an inch of their lives. Some with open wounds from self-mutilation and abuse by other birds. Most in despair. Just sitting, waiting to die. The owner and helpers, in over their heads, no longer cared. In denial. It was obvious: nothing had been done in there for a very long time. No repairs, no cleaning. The odor: feces, urine, garbage, mouse droppings, decaying bodies. The smell of illness, disease, squalor. The structure. Black mold and mildew creeping across the ceiling, down the walls. Water stains on what remained of the ceiling tiles. Missing wallboard and baseboards. A building in the throes of deterioration.
This was a momentous day for all of us who cared for these birds and had wanted this to happen for such a long time. HS workers and the many volunteers lovingly and carefully removed the birds from the shelter, delivering them to a warehouse space where they were numbered, examined by four highly qualified avian veterinarians, and placed in clean cages with food and water. The veterinarians conducting the triage prescribed medications and treatment plans as needed. Some of the cages from the shelter were cleaned up and utilized, but most were in such appalling condition that they were destroyed. The cages for the cockatiels were new; those for the mid-sized birds were either new or in good, used condition. The cockatoos and macaws, which made up the majority of the birds, were placed in roomy kennel cages. Some were isolated in separate rooms due to advanced illnesses.
Unfortunately, a few of the birds were too ill to survive the transfer and passed away in the first few days; they were past the point of survival, even with medications. Several more would pass away over the next few months from illnesses and wounds that refused to be healed. Most would make it, but would always have issues. What would happen to them, we asked ourselves.
The months drug on as we waited…and waited. Waited for infrequent hearings to happen. Getting our hopes up only to have them dashed. Waited for plea deals that weren’t accepted. Waiting while continuances were granted. Waited while constant arguing continued between the lawyers and the owner. Waited while the owner sued the HS for seizure without cause. There were three judges involved in this: one for the HS, one for the owner’s civil case and one for her criminal charges. About half-way through this five months the HS was caring for them, the birds reached the peak of having benefited from the seizure. They were as healthy as they could get. After that, they health began to show signs of deterioration. The stress of months of unbearable heat (no air conditioning in 90+ degree temperatures) and confinement in the cages were taking their toll. After three to four months in the warehouse, some of the birds which had done well were becoming more ill. Bacterial infections plagued the larger birds. All had become cage-bound and territorial, and death was once again claiming some of them. The seizure had defeated its purpose as those in power procrastinated and did not make closing the case a priority. They needed to be sent to permanent facilities, but no one in charge heeded the signs or listened to those of us who did.
In October, five months from the seizure date, the case was finally closed. The owner had accepted the plea deal. However, from the onset, not long after the birds were seized, she returned to her hoarding behavior. The HS received custody of the birds which had previously been wards of the court. Immediately, the veterinarian in charge began to evaluate them, running tests to make sure they were ready for release. He found that many had become ABV positive. The Borna virus had spread in those conditions—a small space, intense heat, lack of exercise, fresh air and sunshine—it did not surprise those of us who knew birds and were familiar with ABV. From there it was but a brief time before some began showing clinical signs of PDD.
Nonetheless, all but a few of the birds were released. The seriously ill were taken to the veterinarian’s clinic. The HS had been searching for some time for reputable sanctuaries to take them in. Some sanctuaries did not want to take in the ABV birds, but eventually they were taken in as well. All but the few who had taken ill again were taken by these other rescue organizations. We all hoped they would be adopted out from the shelters, but we knew many would be difficult to place.
What are we to learn from this?
All of us, the veterinarians, their technicians and staff, the vet students, those who run sanctuaries and shelters, aviculturists, breeders, owners of any animal, neighbors and friends of animal owners—everyone—must be more vigilant about animal hoarding. Dr. Gary Petronek, in his books and papers, lays out specific guidelines for spotting hoarding behavior.
I have no doubt that this woman had every good intention when she began to collect birds. She had been doing this for many years, in several different locations. But this time, her mental illnesses overcame any sense of caution and restraint. The warning signs had been there for years, yet she and those who knew her and of her hoarding behavior ignored them. Incapable of self-restraint, she continued unabated. No one took the time to alert the authorities. Instead, her obsession went unchecked, and the end result was that hundreds of birds over the years suffered and died from her neglect.
Veterinarians need to ascertain from the clients the number of birds—or other animals—the person has. It is essential that he ask questions:
- Tell me about your birds or pets…
- How many are there now?
- Are you able to care for them yourself?
- Do you have any help?
- How long does it take to clean their cages each day?
- Do you have enough money to cover their expenses?
- I haven’t seen you in a long time.
- Are you and the animals all right?
These are hard questions to ask. At the risk of appearing to pry or losing a friendship, however, the professionals and all the person’s acquaintances must ask them. The owner’s family, friends and neighbors, upon becoming aware of the conditions, are obligated to notify the authorities. If necessary, the veterinarian has a responsibility to make an unscheduled visit to see for himself the conditions in which these animals are living.
We cannot sit idly by and assume the animals are well cared for, no matter how much the client insists. Hoarders are never truthful about their circumstances. The animals’ welfare is far too important to ignore.
Research by Sibylle Johnson