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Woman may be animal hoarder

The behavior, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorders, leads people to collect animals they can't care for, such as the 157 mistreated pets seized from the woman's ranch.


© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001

The behavior, similar to obsessive-compulsive disorders, leads people to collect animals they can't care for, such as the 157 mistreated pets seized from the woman's ranch.

Jim Varn was almost physically sick when he saw the conditions that more than 150 animals were living in at the "Heaven and Earth" ranch in Spring Lake.

In the days following the raid, in which Varn and Animal Control officials seized truckloads of livestock and pets from a squalid barn and 20-acre property, a dog and two kittens have had to be humanely destroyed because they were in such bad shape. Others are still battling infection.

But the animals are not the only ones sick, the animal control director says. Their owner, Julia Hornik, is also in need of help.

Varn says he suspects Hornik is what people in his industry call a collector or an animal hoarder:a person who can't stop adopting animals even when she can no longer take care of them.

"And I have no doubt others are out there," Varn said. "Some don't even realize they are doing it. They think they're helping the animals, doing the greatest thing in the world."

Although Hornik's case is extreme, Varn and other experts say it is far from rare. In Hernando County alone, Varn said he can recall a handful of cases that were as bad or worse. They include a man who had 400 dogs and cats hidden in his house and a woman who served as a foster home for the Humane Society until more than 100 cats were discovered packed into her residence about three years ago.

Nationwide, the level of attention being paid to animal hoarders is growing as knowledge about them also grows. Experts estimate there are between 700 and 2,000 cases of animal hoarding in the United States every year.

The stereotypical animal hoarder that most people know is the "cat lady," an elderly woman who lives alone and fills her home with too many animals. In some of the most extreme cases, authorities have found people living with not only hundreds of animals but also numerous animal corpses.

But Dr. Gary Patronek, a veterinarian and professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts who studies animal hoarding, said hoarding crosses all gender, age, race and socioeconomic lines.

Often, hoarders claim to have been "called" to take care of those that are sick and abandoned, he said. Yet the conditions they provide end up being worse.

"That's the contradiction," he said. "They claim to have a special connection with animals, yet they are totally indifferent to their suffering."

In the case of the "Heaven and Earth" ranch, authorities say the property owner said she was operating an animal sanctuary and hoped to one day open a children's petting zoo.

Two weeks ago, animal control workers found more than 150 animals that they said had been neglected. Some were kept in filthy cages, others had not been fed properly, and more were sick and had not received medical care, Varn said.

The owner, Julia Hornik, remains out of town. Originally, Varn said he wanted her to face felony charges of animal cruelty when she returned.

Now, in light of the research surrounding animal hoarders, Varn is rethinking that. He and her lawyer are working on an agreement that would require her to pay fines, give up the animals and receive psychiatric treatment in exchange for no jail time.

"In the beginning, I was in a state of anger. But I had to sit down and think," Varn said Friday. "I don't think stomping on her will do any good at this point."

The Horniks, reached in Illinois by the Times, have declined comment. But Varn said he has also received phone calls from family members who are glad authorities have stepped in.

"They are glad this is happening," Varn said. "They realize she got in over her head."

Getting animal hoarders help is difficult, however, because authorities are still unsure what causes the behavior. In an attempt to learn more about hoarders, Patronek and a group of researchers from across the country formed a consortium to study it. They document cases of hoarding and interview the hoarders to better understand what motivates them.

"We do need to listen to their stories," Patronek said. "If we just stereotype them as evil people or troubled souls, that doesn't help them."

At this point, there is not enough evidence or research to classify hoarding as a mental illness, but the behavior has many similarities with obsessive-compulsive disorders, the professor said. People with this syndrome appear to experience an overwhelming sense of responsibility for preventing imagined harm to animals, and they engage in unrealistic steps to fulfill this responsibility.

Similarities are also seen between people who hoard animals and those who hoard objects -- for example, people who can't bring themselves to throw away trash.

People who hoard possessions frequently identify their possessions as part of themselves, so when they lose a possession, it often leads to a great sense of loss.

Others see hoarding as an addiction similar to alcoholism or other substance abuses. Those who accept this theory, Patronek said, see parallels in behavior: preoccupation with the addiction, denial, alibis for the behavior, isolation from society, enablers who allow the addiction to continue and relapses of the addictive behavior.

Still more say collectors are simply desperate for control over someone or something and find this power over animals exhilarating. There is also an element of delusion. In some cases -- even when faced with the corpses of their own animals -- hoarders will not acknowledge, or are unable to recognize, the mistreatment they have inflicted.

Whatever the cause of the behavior, officials say that collecting is very difficult to treat and that relapses are frequent.

A good example of this is the Hernando County case in which a man was found with 400 animals in his home, Varn said. The man moved to Ocala. Two months ago, Varn said, he got a call from Animal Control in Marion County saying that the man had started hoarding again.

One way authorities try to control the behavior is through court intervention. A judge can ban a person from ever owning animals again, as well as order supervision of a person's animals if they are allowed to keep them.

Varn says his office is monitoring the pets of one woman who had been a problem. Because inspectors come out to look at the home once a year and check to make sure that the animals are properly fed and vaccinated, Varn said he feels assured that the owner could not afford to collect any more pets than she has -- even if she wanted to.

A wrench in the system is that many hoarders move after they have been caught, making such monitoring difficult or impossible. For instance, Varn said, he doubts the Horniks will return to Hernando County.

"She does not want to face the public," Varn said. "Someone has already gone out and slashed the tires on her trailer."

To truly address the problem of animal hoarding, Patronek said, health professionals must be involved. Even if the animals are removed from the home, the hoarder still craves animals.

Authorities must address not only the bad conditions the animals were living in, but also the conditions of the owner and their relatives. Often, neglect is taking place there, Patronek said.

"This is not just about animals," the professor said. "You can get a search warrant, get all the animals out and even win your case. But that doesn't address the person, and then they are right back at it. The old adage is they have another cat by the time they're home from the courthouse."

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