Sunday, August 3, 2008

Animal Hoarders and others

This is Bearface, who came in from the same original place as Alphina. If you might be interested in adopting them (or any of our other animals), please email
Which leads into the subject of today's post, sparked off by an article on the Disability Now website. Bearface, Alphina and their eight other friends were brought in by our inspector after being signed over to the RSPCA because their previous owner couldn't cope with so many cats any longer. They were all evidently loved and cared for and there was absolutely no question of anyone being prosecuted.
The vast majority of the animals, other than injured strays, that we take in for rehoming fall into variations on the "can no longer cope" category, for a variety of legitimate reasons. Sometimes because people's circumstances have changed; often because a landlord has finally taken exception to the large number of animals being kept, and fairly frequently because the owner has mental or physical problems severe enough to cause them to be placed in some kind of institution for reasons that are not necessarily related to the fact that they have pets.
The most horrific example of this last category that's ever happened in our own area is one where a very elderly couple owned a number of dogs. The husband was suffering from severe dementia and his wife sadly had a heart attack and died with the result that he lived with his wife's remains for several weeks, unable to comprehend the situation enough to call the emergency services or feed the dogs. That clearly wasn't his fault, and the only reason our poor inspector was called in by the police was because they needed someone to deal with the surviving dogs.
When someone is suddenly taken into hospital or prison it is the responsibility of the emergency services to protect their possessions and, in the case of inanimate objects, this is simple to do by making their home secure. It clearly isn't an option to do this with living animals, which is why the police and social services will generally try to get the RSPCA to take them if it seems likely that the owner isn't going to return within a reasonable timespan. It's fairly clear from some of the Internet discussions about the RSPCA that this is sometimes interpreted as us "seizing" the animals, although from our perspective we've done nothing except respond to a request to care for animals who have been (involuntarily) abandoned by their owner.
Which leads on to the comparatively rare situations where animals are seized and their owners prosecuted. First of all, it should be said firmly that the RSPCA doesn't (and is not allowed to) simply take animals away without authorisation from the police and a veterinary surgeon's opinion. Once the animals have been removed they remain the property of the original owner until the owner signs them over to the RSPCA voluntarily or until a court makes an order about their future. This is as is should be - as a voluntary body we ought not to be in a position of being judge, jury and executioner.
The problem in the case of people who have a mental abnormality of some kind and are not willing to give up animals voluntarily is that it means there is no middle way to avoid putting them through the whole process of prosecution, including the inevitable publicity, without simply abandoning the animals to their fate. Rosalind Gregson is an absolutely classic example of someone who had to be stopped from collecting more and more animals and keeping them in abysmal conditions, but who wasn't fully responsible for her actions. Prison clearly wasn't an appropriate punishment for her, but sentencing is the decision of the court, not the RSPCA. Margaret O'Leary is a similar case.
In the States animal hoarding is beginning to be recognised as a specific form of mental illness and convicted people may be given treatment orders rather than punishment. This is clearly better, but I can't see any realistic alternative to the prosecution process unless society decides to go down the road of authorising confiscation of animals and enforced treatment of their owners without a legal oversight (or with something like a judge in chambers instead of open court). Have to say I find the idea a bit chilling - what happens to the "mad cat ladies" of this world who are eccentric but do look after their animals and keep numbers within fairly reasonable limits.

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