MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Okay, no matter how much you like cats, you never want to be called a cat lady. It implies a certain, well, unhealthy obsession and it also has a name - pet hoarding - as Ann Dornfeld reports from member station KLCC in Eugene, Oregon.

ANN DORNFELD: When police served a search warrant on the suburban home of Miriam Sakewitz last fall, they found more than 150 rabbits, hopping throughout the house, the yard, and in cages. Ninety dead rabbits were stacked in freezers. Officers needed gas masks to tolerate the stench of ammonia.

Mr. MARK WELLS(ph) (Lead Investigator, Oregon Humane Society): It was pretty classic to large hoarding cases that we work.

DORNFELD: Oregon Humane Society lead investigator Mark Wells describes the scene.

Mr. WELLS: Mainly overcrowding, a lot of cannibalization of the animals eating each other because of the overcrowding and being aggressive - way too many animals for one person to take care of.

DORNFELD: Miriam Sakewitz was charged with 157 counts of animal neglect, and police took the rabbits to a city storage facility. Then in January, police say Sakewitz rented a moving van, pried open the warehouse door, cut through a chain-link fence, and stole most of the rabbits back. Police found the rabbits on a farm in Washington state and re-arrested Sakewitz. They brought the rabbits to this police-station garage, now lined with hay.

Police say Sakewitz let the stolen rabbits mate, so now there are more rabbits on the way. The bunny burglary has largely been filed as weird news by local media, but to veterinarian Gary Patronek, the story is all too common. At Tufts University, he assembled a team of animal advocates, social workers, and psychologists to do some of the first-ever research, he says, on animal hoarding.

Mr. GARY PATRONEK (Veterinarian): When you talk to the hoarder, these animals are their lives, and having that collection around them is the most important thing in their lives, and they will sacrifice and go to any length to maintain that.

DORNFELD: But, Patronek says, collecting animals is the goal, not taking care of them. Dr. James Hancey directs the Obsessive Compulsive Disorders Clinic at Oregon Health and Science University. He says hoarding is akin to destructive OCD behaviors that feel good in the moments, like hair-pulling.

Dr. JAMES HANCEY (Director, Obsessive Compulsive Disorders Clinic, Oregon Health and Science University): And it looks like for a lot of animal hoarders, there is some kind of enjoyment in that, but there is a failure to recognize that, in fact, the animals ultimately are suffering.

DORNFELD: Nearly three-quarters of animal hoarders are women, Dr. Hancey says, and most, like Miriam Sakewitz, are middle-aged or older. Many live alone, and the fear of having their animals seized increases their seclusion. Dr. Hancey says new research and clinical experience show hoarders respond to a combination of anti-depressants, tranquilizers, and behavioral therapy. He says a gradual down-sizing approach can be effective for all kinds of hoarders.

Dr. HANCEY: So frequently, people will go away with an assignment that they've got to get rid of three bags of stuff, and we try to keep increasing that amount.

DORNFELD: Hoarding researcher Gary Patronek says only one state, Illinois, has a law that deals specifically with animal hoarding. In many other states…

Mr. PATRONEK: …they're limited by the state cruelty statutes, which may, for example, require intent to harm animals in order to get a high-level penalty such as a felony. And by our definition and experience, even though the suffering in these cases is extreme, there is really no intent to harm.

DORNFELD: If Miriam Sakewitz is convicted of animal neglect, she, like most hoarders, will likely avoid jail time. She faces a ban from owning animals and tens of thousands of dollars in restitution, but Gary Patronek says without intense counseling and monitoring, animal hoarders almost always start collecting again. For NPR News, I'm Ann Dornfeld in Eugene, Oregon.

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