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Animal hoarders need mental-health treatment, experts say

Bradley and Elizabeth Roden had good intentions when they started raisingdogs. The Polk County couple sold them to bring in extra money. They doted on them as pets.

But by the time the Sheriff's Office in March confiscated 184 pooches kept inside and outside the Rodens' fly- and rat-infested double-wide mobile home, the situation had spun out of control, everyone involved agrees.

"It became a little overwhelming," Bradley Roden, 61, told the Orlando Sentinel last week from his home on 16 acres north of Lakeland.

Roden, who is charged with confining animals without sufficient food or water, and his 71-year-old wife, who is charged with animal abandonment, are typical of people who hoard animals, experts said.

Though the stereotype of the old cat lady who lives alone is often true — two-thirds of hoarders are women — hoarders can be younger, married, male and employed in professional jobs, experts say. The defining characteristics include owning more animals than normal, failing to care for them and being unable to see that the animals are suffering.

The scope of the problem is not fully known because hoarding cases often are classified as animal cruelty. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that at least 3,000 hoarding cases occur annually in the U.S. TV shows such as "Confessions: Animal Hoarding" have shined a light on the issue.

In Central Florida, rural counties such as Polk and Marion have reported the most cases, although Orange County also has its share.

The problem starts with two or three pets and snowballs. Often, hoarders also accumulate objects such as trash, newspapers, bottles and clothing.

"They think they're doing the right thing as they take these animals in, but then they get overwhelmed," said Officer Sergio Pacheco, a field supervisor with Volusia County Animal Control. "Their intention is to save the world, and they don't know when to say 'enough.' "

To remedy the situation, animal-control workers confiscate pets, law officers arrest owners and courts fine them. Sometimes, the owners move to a new home. None of these actions is likely to solve the problem long term, said Christiana Bratiotis, director of a hoarding research project at Boston University.

"Underneath the acquiring of too many animals are these distorted beliefs and strong emotions," Bratiotis said.

Orange County Animal Services is working with social-service agencies that look after children, the elderly and people with mental-health problems to identify and help hoarders, said Kat Kennedy, spokeswoman for animal services. Osceola County does the same thing, said Lee Radebaugh, animal-control director.

"They need counseling," Radebaugh said. "They need compassion. They need understanding. They need to get to the core of the problem."

Like surrogate children

Homes occupied by hoarders often are filthy, cluttered and strewn with animal waste, investigators say. A case in point was discovered June 15 in the Fairview Shores neighborhood north of Orlando.

Thirty-nine cats confiscated from a 54-year-old woman's unit in a triplex were so malnourished and sick that they had to be euthanized, Kennedy said. A decomposed kitten lay under the bed. The temperature inside the flea-infested home, which was shut tight with the air conditioning off, was 93 degrees, deputy sheriffs said.

Even in such extreme circumstances, hoarders consider their pets surrogate children and are blind to their sickly condition, experts said. In one case, a man claimed he had developed a rare breed of German shepherd when, in fact, hisdogs had untreated mange, said Randall Lockwood, a psychologist and senior vice president at the ASPCA.

"Virtually all of the hoarders I've encountered think they know more about animal care than any veterinarian," said Lockwood, the author of two books on animal cruelty.

Although incarceration is not a solution, prosecution can be the first step toward getting treatment for hoarders and legally mandating that they don't accumulate critters again. It also removes animals from a situation that is tantamount to torture.

Without constant monitoring, however, the recidivism rate is 100 percent, Lockwood said.

"They're extremely frustrating cases for authorities to deal with — depressing, demanding, costly," he said. "It's rare that you get an outcome that is satisfactory for all concerned."

In Polk County, Roden, who is disabled and recycled scrap metal to earn money for dog food, said he misses his "babies" — particularly Tamara, a Brussels griffon who slept near his head. He hopes to own dogs again.

"They're little loves," he said. "They love you unconditionally."

Roden insists that animal-services workers confiscated his pets to justify their existence and has no idea how he will pay $17,000 in fines levied against him for failing to inoculate and license the dogs.

"As far as I'm concerned, they overblew this whole thing," he said. "It wasn't near what they made it out to be." or 407-540-5981

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