Animal hoarding: When 'compassion' can become a crime
Several years ago, David Skeberdis found two abandoned parakeets while installing computers at O'Hare International Airport. He decided to rescue the birds.
A few weeks later, the Aurora man saw a few birds struggling in the cold, so he took them home, too, his attorney recalled.
But somewhere along the way, compassion turned into a crime.
Helping had turned into hoarding.
"He was trying to do the right thing. It got away from him. But that doesn't make him a bad guy," said defense attorney Roderick Mollison, noting his client couldn't bring himself to euthanize deformed baby birds as experienced breeders do.
In October 2012, things really got away from Skeberdis. A painter saw dozens of birds -- an alarming sight inside Skeberdis' townhouse. Soon, police found 120 dead birds, and 378 in cages or flying about the filth. The basement floor was covered in bird feces, and there was no sign of food or water, according to court records.
Skeberdis, 58, was charged with animal cruelty. He pleaded guilty in November and was sentenced to a year of probation.
Skeberdis' case was rivaled for notoriety by only one other suburban hoarding case in the past few years. An Elgin man is due in court next month to answer animal cruelty charges. Authorities say they found 43 rotting animal carcasses, mostly cats, in his home.
Local authorities say hoarding is rare. Elgin, for instance, reports about two cases a year. Other suburban animal authorities report similar low numbers.
But hoarding is not uncommon. Much of it goes unreported, and pinning down a precise number of hoarding cases is difficult. Nationwide, though, there could be about 250,000 cases each year, says Joyce Tischler, founder and general counsel of the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund.
Hoarders, she adds, "don't have the ability to stop themselves. They keep doing it and doing it until the smell gets out of hand or they get caught."
And, whatever good intentions hoarders might have, they need to be stopped, Tischler said, noting the terrible conditions hoarded animals live in. Further, there are high levels of ammonia contained in animal feces that harm the owners as well.
Once a hoarder
Tatiana Garrett, director of communications for the Chicago-based Anti-Cruelty Society, said the group investigated 658 complaints of cruelty last year in Chicago, and found 492 violations. Not all of the complaints had to do with animal hoarding, but that doesn't mean it's not a cause for concern,
"Just because a major case hasn't hit the media lately doesn't mean these cases aren't being dealt with on a regular basis," Garrett said.
Tischler said animal hoarding is a behavior pattern that mental health experts are still trying to figure out. And once a hoarder, always a hoarder, she added.
"The recidivism rate is between 99 and 100 percent. People who hoard will move to another state or city and start all over," she said. "They want control over their animals' lives. They do think of themselves as a Christ kind of figure."
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium studied hoarders and hoarding cases from 1997 to 2006.
The group established a spectrum of hoarding. At one end is the "overwhelmed caregiver," who passively acquires animals and then cannot care for them. The other is the "exploiter hoarder," who actively acquires animals, has sociopathic characteristics and an extreme need for control.
In the middle is the "rescuer hoarder," who finds it difficult to refuse animals and actively acquires them.
Tischler said most hoarders are older women; cats are the animal of choice.
But social media photos of a dozen kittens in a box with the caption "Crazy Cat Lady Starter Kit" are no laughing matter.
"We need to seriously consider that these people have a problem that they really can't be helped with," Tischler said. "I hear it all the time, 'I'm keeping the animal alive and the shelter will kill them.' That's the No. 1 reason. This is a mental disease. It doesn't have a name yet other than 'hoarding.'"
A pet is taken to a local shelter has not necessarily received a death sentence.
The DuPage County Animal Care and Control Center in Wheaton did not euthanize a single cat last year because of a lack of space. Some were put down because of health or behavioral problems.
DCACC Administrator Todd Faraone said the group's foundation and rescue operations raised money to help subsidize adoption programs during the year, and the center worked with rescue groups to reach the no euthanization goal.
Checking for pathogens and disease is the first step when the staff at Golf Rose Animal Hospital in Schaumburg takes in animals from a hoarding situation, said administrator Charles "Chip" Bulson. The facility contracts with more than a dozen suburbs to help enforce animal control laws, housing animals while court cases proceed and getting each one healthy again so a humane society or shelter can find an adoptive home.
In addition to their poor health, hoarded animals are less likely to be socialized to humans, Bulson said.
And as evidence that extreme hoarding cases can escape the media glare, Bulson said the worst one he's seen was resolved privately. It involved more than 60 cats, and the smell from their house reeked a quarter-mile away.
"When we pulled up, the felines were jumping out the windows, literally. (They were) in the wall cavities, attic," he recalled. "Ninety percent of the house was covered in feces and urine, including bedrooms where the family slept."
Illinois law defines a "companion animal hoarder" as a person who acquires a large number of animals, fails to provide proper care for them, puts them in a "severely overcrowded environment" and has the inability to recognize or understand and "reckless disregard" for the conditions and effect it can have on the health of the animals or owner. Such hoarders usually are charged with animal cruelty, neglect or abuse.
The first offense of animal cruelty is a misdemeanor; a second is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.
For the past six years, the Animal Legal Defense Fund has ranked Illinois No. 1 in the nation for the strictness of its animal control laws. One provision in state law allows a judge to order a psychological evaluation for a suspected hoarder; evaluations are mandatory for juveniles.
Despite all those efforts, the defense fund's Tischler has a suggestion: Illinois should establish an database of convicted animal abusers, including hoarders, similar to sex offender registries.
James Rog, an animal control officer for the Elgin Police Department for almost 10 years, goes a step further, suggesting a national database.
"Hoarding is compulsive behavior. It's a huge problem nationwide, not just with animals but with other things," Rog said, noting many hoarding situations are resolved without criminal charges. "It's year-round. People have been living that way so long that they've found a way to hide it."
Elgin's notorious hoarding case started in September 2012, when a city lawn mowing crew discovered some 43 rotting animal carcasses, including 27 cats, in a van on the 200 block of Villa Street.
William Tinkler, 61, was charged with animal cruelty and is due in court on March 11. Four of Tinkler's cats were forfeited in civil court proceedings. A message left with his assistant public defender handling the case was not returned.
Rog said some signs of animal hoarding are residences with closed windows no matter what time of year, bad ammonia odors and large amounts of cat litter in the trash.
"If something doesn't seem right, go with your gut instinct -- call us," Rog said.
"Our goal isn't to seize animals and euthanize them," he added. "Our goal is to get them the care they deserve. We need people to be our eyes and ears."