Animal hoarding is something I had never heard of until recently. It is an actual mental disorder, which drives someone to collect animals as they would collect stamps or seashells. Hoarding is different from just having a lot of animals – the true hoarder hoards without regard for the wellbeing of the animals. They collect all they can without having space, money or facilities to take proper care of all these animals. And what’s more – the true hoarder doesn’t realise he is not taking good care of them. They believe they have rescued these animals, even if the poor creatures are starving around them.
I started doing research on this behaviour after an unsettling experience with a old lady in a moshav close to us. We met her when we went to buy chicken food and got talking to her, telling her about the pet zoo we were starting. She invited us to see her own ‘pet zoo’ and we went with her eagerly, taking our then 7-year old son with us. In hindsight, I wish we had left the boy at home – I think he was terrified the entire time.
The ‘pet zoo’ was basically a network of makeshift pens, sheds, hutches and other cages in her backyard. Warning bells went off in my head when I had to duck to avoid all the gently waving spider web curtains that were hanging off everything. There was dust and dirt everywhere. Feral cats and kittens were roaming around freely and I immediately regretted pointing them out to my son when I saw a dead kitten lying on the floor, crawling with ants. The old lady ambled ahead of us happily, seemingly oblivious to the dirt and decay around her.
I looked around and saw rabbits everywhere. And I mean everywhere. There were herds of them stuffed into overcrowded chicken pens, flimsy cages, hutches and wooden boxes. I looked again and noticed guinea pigs running around amongst them. The lady lifted the lid of some sort of dark container and inside was a fluffy white lionhead rabbit in the company of a guinea pig. There was an entire row of those containers, right next to the tower of stacked boxes. “With the lionheads, I can’t tell which ones are males and females,” she said, shaking her head. “Too much fluff. So they are always breeding.”
We walked further into the labyrinth of chicken wire, to the turkeys, goats and geese. All animals were caged or penned in pairs, presumably breeding more. We met a lone male emu pacing along the parameter of his pen, looking like a feathered dinosaur. My son hid behind his father, his eyes wide and worried. All the while, the lady kept up a merry stream of conversation about her animals. She was a big believer in herbal remedies over traditional medicine and told us all about the special oil she used to rid her goats of fleas. I looked again and recorded alarming signs of illnesses and infestations. She told many terrible stories about predators that tore through her chicken wire fences and dragged away her cherished pets.
A mixture of fascination and horror kept me there talking to her much longer than I should have. As my son was begging me to go home, I convinced the lady to give me two of her lionhead rabbits (“well, they breed enough anyway,” she said anxiously) because I simply could not leave without rescueing at least one or two of those pitiful creatures. I took the fluffly white male from the box and another brown female. They were crawling with fleas and their nails were overgrown. I called them Tsemer and Choco. Unfortunately, Tsemer was ill and died not long afterwards, but Choco is still with us, living a happy life in a spacious cage with lots of good food and company.
When I got home, I immediately googled “people who collect animals” and made the chilling discovery of the existence of animal hoarding. I will spare you the horrific stories I read, but I realised had just met one of the milder hoarders out there. I grabbed my husband by the front of his shirt and demanded: “If I ever show even the slightest sign of ending up like that lady, STOP ME!” He promised and I calmed down. Still, whenever the population of rabbits in my place has a minor explosion, I don’t rest easily until I have got the numbers under control again. The hoarder will forever be a horror image in my mind.