Let me preface this by saying back in 1999 when this transpired, the term “hoarder” was not known by the general public. People just referred to their loved ones as being a ‘pack rat’ or figured they were lazy slobs who didn’t like housekeeping. Thanks to the tv show “Hoarders”, we now know that hoarding (animals or otherwise) is a mental disorder within the OCD family that is not treatable by medication alone.
It’s extremely difficult & stressful for both the person, as well as their family members who struggle to understand this compulsion. Ongoing professional counseling with a licensed therapist specializing in hoarding is critical to not only identify what triggers these tendencies, but to overcome the shame & learn new thought processes in order to avoid backsliding.
The urge to hoard is very strong & often runs in families.
After reading a book about the Collyer Brothers of NYC, the 1st documented case of hoarding dating back to 1947 (when they were found dead in their home), my sister & I FINALLY had a word to put towards what was going on in our Mom’s house, plus in the houses of several Aunts & cousins all on our Mom’s side of the family. For example, the photo (see below) could’ve been taken of our Mom’s kitchen (but thankfully wasn’t).
We know that for the rest of our lives, we both must be vigilant not to let this happen to us & to our homes, too.
Here’s how it all started….
I’d been going to a client’s house to do her nails while she was laid up recovering from surgery & I do mean laid up. She could not get out of bed for many months & every 2 weeks I’d faithfully pack up my nail supplies to drive across town in order to do her acrylic fills.
It was definitely a challenge trying to complete 1 hand at a time while the client was laying flat on her back, with me sitting to one side of her bed hand filing everything. Then I’d pack up all my supplies to move around to the other side of the hospital bed (set up in her living room) in order to do her other hand. Then we’d sit & talk some more, so this process took up 3-4 hours of my afternoon on my day off.
Looking back on it now, I realize she’d have been just fine with a once a month nail service since she wasn’t cleaning house, working or doing anything other than operating the tv remote control & feeding herself. But she enjoyed getting visitors & I had the extra time back then.
On 1 of my visits, her tv was on & the local channel was breaking the news about an elderly lady who neighbors thought may have been dead because of a bad smell, plus she hadn’t been seen in a few days days. When authorities arrived expecting to find a corpse, they discovered she was indeed alive, but got the shock of their lives upon realizing more than 60 cats (most of them wild; the final tally was even higher) were living inside with the widowed lady!
We stopped doing nails & in disbelief we watched the scene unfold on the tv screen.
This was August in Kentucky, which means 90 to 100+ degree blazing heat & humid as all hell. They reported that the woman’s air conditioner had stopped working a year prior after the April 1998 hailstorm, plus her roof & gutters had extensive damage which resulted in massive leaking into her home. And she lived there in denial along with all her many cats.
We stared with mouths agape as the Human Society & the police wearing full HazMat suits complete with plexiglass face masks & air tanks/ventilators were transporting these feral cats stuffed inside cages out of this woman’s home, which happened to be located only a few blocks from my client’s house!
This was the first we’d ever seen such a thing & it was unbelievable. Back then we had not been desensitized to visions of animal hoarding on tv, so we were completely dumbfounded, repulsed & yet mesmerized. Like a car wreck, we just couldn’t look away.
The news reported that every piece of furniture was in shreds, the walls were severely damaged by cat urine along with rainwater, plus at least 1 room’s ceiling had caved in onto the floor beneath it. There were cats in the attic, cats under the house, hairballs & feces carpeting every inch of the floor. One officer said that upon shining his flashlight into the attic, he saw nothing but eyes glowing back at him.
It was said that 1 oscillating fan clogged with 2″ of cat hair was the only source of air & the “extreme odor of cat urine stood in the house like a stone wall”. Most of the female cats were pregnant & carcasses of several kittens were found in closets. The homeowner didn’t know how many cats she had, but thought it was around 20. After this horrifying discovery, her house was deemed unsafe & she went to live with relatives in the next town over.
After that the newspaper reported traps were set out & rechecked daily to catch all of the cats….80 in total, but at least 10 cats were already dead when taken from the home. The rest of the cats were put to sleep because they all had respiratory diseases, plus eye & ear infections caused from inbreeding, lack of veterinary care & from living in the squalid conditions inside the house.
The woman in charge of the Humane Society euthanized the cats there at the house to avoid frightening them even further by forcing them to travel to the shelter. She was quoted as saying “ I cried for these animals. I cried for that woman. She was just lonely, had a big heart & missed her husband”. For those cats, there really was no alternative.
“Most were inbred & as a result had extra toes, eye problems & did not respond well to touch”, she said. “Anytime I had to open a door I would kick it open, step back & wait for the bugs to scatter“. It really was a very sad situation all the way around. I’m sure it deeply affected everyone who dealt with it, including that poor elderly lady & her family.
Then the day eventually came when my client was finally able to stand up, then walk with a walker, then finally walk with a cane & after that her doctor approved her to go for a ride in a car. When we were finished with her nails one day & while her polish was drying, she said “Let’s go find the cat house & you can drive me”!
So we got her situated in the front seat of my car, but had to recline it so far back to make her comfortable that she was almost laying down. This was before cell phones or Google Maps, so we slowly drove up & down the neighborhood until we found what street it was on. It was easy to spot the house, since it still had the yellow police tape all around it & a “condemned” notice pinned to the front door.
We parked in the front driveway & my client wanted to go peer into the windows, but I talked her out of that notion by saying that the ghosts of the dead cats would come back to haunt us. I remember nervously looking around at neighboring houses, just fearing someone would see me & call the police. I’m sure the neighbors couldn’t see the top of my clients head just barely sticking up above my car door & I most certainly didn’t want to risk being recognized by anyone, so we hurriedly left.
We were like 2 giddy kids driving away laughing with relief, as if we’d just survived the local haunted house & couldn’t wait to tell all of our friends about it or something!
The brick house looked normal, except for the police tape & a 12 foot section of gutter that had come loose from its moorings. 1 end was still attached to the house while the other end was touching the ground. From the front you could not see where the roof damage occurred & the front yard appeared recently mowed. The back yard had a chain link fence around it, a few trees & 1 lone doghouse. Amazingly, we couldn’t smell anything bad with our windows rolled down, which struck us as odd, but maybe the wind was in our favor.
How did it all end, you ask?
Well, the elderly lady was allowed to keep 2 healthy cats (immediately spayed & neutered by the Humane Society). Her 1 lone dog was amazingly in good health, most likely thanks to it living out back in that doghouse & it was put up for adoption. She was given a period of time to assess the house’s damage & make the necessary repairs, but in the end those proved too costly as the urine, feces & water damage was so vast. The house could not be salvaged & many months later it was completely demolished. Someone bought the lot & a new house that looks totally out of place from all the 1960’s neighboring homes now stands there.
A few years later we’d heard thru the grapevine that the elderly lady went to live in a nursing home & by now has most likely passed away.