By Jake Rossen
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Molly grew up in the home of an animal hoarder. When she was six years old, she watched her mother's love for dogs spiral out of control. Each dog she added to the home was another she didn't have the means to care for.
"She loved her dogs more than me," says Molly, who asked that she remain anonymous. "She let her alcoholism get in the way of taking care of her dogs. I got so frustrated that I didn't want to deal with it anymore."
Last year, Molly called the Animal Humane Society to report her 47-year-old mom. When authorities entered the Anoka County residence in June 2009, many of the 20 dogs had disappeared from the property. What they did find was no less than horrifying.
The floors were slathered in feces and urine. There was a female bulldog in an unventilated kennel that was having trouble breathing. It was unable to stand or walk. By the time it arrived at the veterinary clinic for care, the bulldog was already dead.
Three of the other dogs tested positive for parasites. Others had respiratory, ear, and eye infections that were treatable with routine veterinary care.
The owner was charged with one gross misdemeanor and six misdemeanors for the neglect.
Keith Streff, an Animal Humane Society investigator, visited the home and sees similar conditions often. He receives tips about animal cruelty and helps investigate cases throughout the state. Streff compares animal hoarders to drunk drivers who continue to reoffend unless the underlying issue is addressed. You can take away the animals, but the home will be repopulated eventually.
"Once a hoarder, always a hoarder," Streff says. "That attraction doesn't go away."
The handling of animal hoarding cases has advanced in the last several years. Judges now have the ability to assign psychological, behavioral, or other counseling in addition to probationary measures such as limiting the number of animals allowed in the home.
Jane Nathanson is one of the nation's leading experts in treating animal hoarders. The Boston counselor and consultant gets calls from across the country when hoarders are required to seek help for their condition.
"Shifting the focus to the treatment of the animal hoarder is relatively new," Nathanson says. "It was assumed this was an animal problem and animal protection people would take care of it, but there is a human side."
Nathanson says hoarders are often labeled with obsessive-compulsive disorder, but that doesn't begin to address what is going on. Animals provide an interactive relationship with hoarders, unlike the collecting of inanimate objects. Hoarders receive positive reinforcement from the animals, who don't know they're being mistreated.
"They mean so much to their animals, when in their everyday life they feel like no one cares about them," Nathanson explains. "In the company of animals, they've found an identity and get a heightened self-esteem."
In April, investigators removed 25 cats from Stoehr's Duluth Township trailer. They also found 20 cats alive in a pole barn on the property, and 39 dead ones. When authorities visited Stoehr's house in Two Harbors, they removed another 32 cats.
Stoehr's hoarding has been a problem for more than a decade. In 1997, a fire at his Duluth Township property burned down his trailer, killing 73 cats.
Offenders aren't just stereotypical "crazy cat ladies," experts say. Hoarders often have a host of mental issues, including depression, anxiety, and attachment disorders. Many suffered a childhood trauma or a major loss in their life.
Renae Reinardy, a Minnetonka psychologist, treats animal hoarders. She says one of the biggest challenges is dealing with pet owners who truly believe they are saviors for housing so many animals that might otherwise be euthanized.
"Hoarders have good intentions, but get overwhelmed," Reinardy says. "They won't even know their animal is starving to death and they are living in feces and urine."
Reinardy advocates for criminal charges in these cases, but says without psychological treatment it's only a matter of time before the situation deteriorates again.
"We often focus on the animals and their living conditions," she says. "It's important we remember that the hoarder is living in those conditions too."