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Special Report: Looking into the mind of an animal hoarder

In the past six months, Rutherford County deputies have looked into 110 animal neglect cases. About 10-15 percent of those involved owners having more than 10 animals on their properties. Similar cases have popped up all over Western North Carolina. In 2015, deputies took in 59 dogs and cats from a Mitchell County home. In 2016, a man was charged with 55 counts of animal cruelty. But the number that tops them all was in Haywood County, where 140 dogs were rescued from a single home. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

In the past six months, Rutherford County deputies have looked into 110 animal neglect cases. About 10-15 percent of those involved owners having more than 10 animals on their properties.

Rutherford County deputy Sarah Hartman said the department has seized more than 50 animals from two places in the last few years. In the homes, they found unsanitary living conditions and animals cramped into tiny spaces and covered in fecal matter.

"It's really hard, because we can't just walk in somewhere and take animals that need to be taken," she said. "There's a legal process we have to go through. And, a lot of times, it's really hard to walk away from something like that. "

Similar cases have popped up all over Western North Carolina. In 2015, deputies took in 59 dogs and cats from a Mitchell County home.

In 2016, Ronald Lewis Robinson was charged with 55 counts of animal cruelty.

"I had a mother that had a lot of puppies, and I did try to sell them. But, it wasn't successful because I really couldn't find good homes and so it added up to too many," Robinson said.

But the number that tops them all was in Haywood County, where 140 dogs were rescued from a single home. Animal control said it was one of the toughest jobs they have ever encountered.

"The neighbors contacted us and said there was a lot of barking. They said they may have 10, 15 or maybe 20 dogs, and then we found that there were a lot more," Haywood County director of Animal Services Doyle Teague said.

Teague said the owners thought they were doing what was best for the animals.

"They said that people would bring the animals to them and drop them or they would find them as strays and that they were just afraid to turn them in to anybody," Teague said. "They thought they were doing the right thing in their mind."

Teague said charges have not been filled in the case because the owners are cooperating.

"They relinquished all the animals except four. We are doing random checks to make sure that the four are OK and they haven't added to them. At the end of the six-month period, we are going to decide how to proceeded forward and get a resolution to this incident," Teague said.

Hoarding is classified as a mental disorder, added to the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders in 2013.

According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, there are three criteria used to define animal hoarding: an individual possesses more than the typical number of companion animals; the individual is unable to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness and death; and the individual is in denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household and human occupants of the dwelling.

Dr. Signi Goldman, of the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy Center of WNC, said hoarders often won't seek help.

"A lot of people who accumulate pets or items are actually ashamed or embarrassed of what they got around them or they may feel unwilling to have other people around their homes for that reason. What's really driving the behavior is an anxiety or fear response. It's actually the fear that is perceived or felt by the person, the idea of discarding," Goldman said.

In some cases, the outcomes can have a tragic ending but often there is also a silver lining.

"I'm really glad that the situation wasn't worse and that we were able to make a difference in these dogs' lives," said Erica Phillips, of Sarges Animal Rescue Foundation.

Most of the dogs were lucky -- 139 of the 140 animals were adopted, all except Sunshine.

"She was one of the first ones to give birth. She was at the vet's office for about three weeks with diabetic, pancreatic, issues, so we still have her. She's going to be hard to find a home."

Emma Anderson adopted one of the Haywood County rescue dogs, named Pudgy.

"He's hilarious. He's the most jealous little dog you'll meet," Anderson said. "He's me, me, me! He still gets nervous around loud noises, and there are still some things that trigger him."

He's one of the many who now have a second chance at life.

"He's our little man. There's nothing more to say. We love him so much, we love both of our dogs. Adopting a dog is like nothing else."

Waynesville therapist Timothy Hussey said hoarders often remain in isolation, finding it easier to connect with animals than humans.

"If we look at past literature, at least 50 percent of hoarders in general have some other type of disorder, like major depression, anxiety disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder," Hussey said.

If you know anyone who may have a hoarding disorder, Goldman recommends visiting the International OCD Foundation for more information.

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