Holding animal hoarders responsible - and helping them reform

FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - This is Valentino. He is one of 15 cats rescued from a hoarding situation earlier this year. While he's safe now, what happened to him there will stay with him for the rest of his life. Because during his time with a hoarder, Valentino developed a viral infection in his eye that will never fully heal. He also has to be on a special diet, and he takes medication for anxiety. Because of these issues, Valentino hasn't been adopted, but medical problems like these are common for cats coming from hoarding situations.

"They often tend to be sick because they're not getting the healthcare they need or just the living conditions they are in are often deplorable," says Heather Clyde, Homeward Animal Shelter's Operations Director. "A lot of them end up with upper respiratory infections, so they're not doing well."

"And then the biggest thing is socialization. Those cats aren't getting the one on one time with those humans, so when we get them in, they're very fearful cats and it takes them a really long time to warm up to people," Clyde adds.

And our local shelters are filling up with more hoarder's pets like Valentino. Last week, another hoarding situation landed 20 more cats in local shelters - which are already overflowing because winter is their busiest season.

"Last week, we received a call that several cats had been removed from a situation in which someone had been evicted and they found nearly 20 cats in the apartment. We did get about half of those cats earlier this week, the other half went to another local organization. We do, unfortunately, see hoarders from time to time – and at this time, we just are already full of cats, so having to take in nine more cats in one day was a lot for us," Clyde says. "Thanks to foster families, we're able to make room for the cats recently, but it's always something we struggle with because no matter how much space you have, when you have a large number of cats coming at once – it always puts a strain on those resources."

But the problem doesn't end there - because rescuers say when all of a hoarder's animals are taken away at once, they often just find new ones.

And that's the case with Tamara Fisher. She's currently facing an animal neglect charge in Cass County, after officers rescued 30 cats from her van back in August. Now, sources say she already has four or five new cats in her van - and legally, there's nothing wrong with that.

"While charges are pending – that gets tricky because if they're collecting animals that haven't been seized by law enforcement, the civil process can really only reach animals that have already been seized by law enforcement," says Assistant State's Attorney Kate Naumann with the Cass County State's Attorney's Office. "While a case is pending, or even if they've been convicted and they're put on probation, it's still difficult to have eyes everywhere. That's why we rely on our law enforcement officers."

If convicted, Fisher could face up to 360 days in jail and a $3,000 fine. But rescuers say there are other ways to stop hoarders from re-offending. Rescuers and officers both say it has to do with building more relationships - not court cases.

"The Community Service Officers – they always try to work with that person to try to reduce the number of animals that they have," says Jessica Schindeldecker, the Crime Prevention and Public Information Officer with the Fargo Police Department. "They try to work with them to say, 'OK, let's find new homes for a couple of these cats or dogs.' And then they'll follow up with them the next week."

"The biggest part with these situations is actually instead of bringing in law enforcement and getting the people in trouble, we've found that building relationships tends to be more help," Clyde says. "Relationships are where it's at and mental health care. Those are the answers."

"If you can build a relationship with these individuals like I did with a gentleman a few years ago – I went over to his house, I explained the situation, what we were going to do. We slowly removed the cats a few at a time, helped him get all of them spayed and neutered while we were still making room for them. And then as time passed, we had a good relationship and so he would call me each time he found a stray cat," Clyde continues. "Having that relationship with that individual – he would just call me each time he found a cat and that's how we were able to keep him from starting to hoard more cats again."

That way, cats like Valentino can have happier and healthier lives.