Read this Book!
by Myrna Milani, DVM
I’d written a review of another mass media bond-book and had fully intended to post it this month when I received a copy of Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs by Arnold Arluke and Celeste Killeen (Purdue University Press, 2009).For me, the subject matter was so pertinent and well-presented it seemed to me that every self-proclaimed animal-lover, everyone involved in shelter or rescue work in any capacity, every veterinarian, vet tech, behaviorist, and trainer, and indeed anyone engaged in animal-related activities of any kind should read this book.
But why? What makes this book so different from all the other bond-related books out there?
The most obvious—and refreshing—difference is the form. In a previous book review I wrote about the shift in publishing from books written from the inside, i.e., by those with firsthand knowledge of a subject, to those written from the outside, i.e. by professional journalists. Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs provides readers with a rare opportunity to compare and contrast these different ways of addressing the same subject and to learn from both.
The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, journalist Celeste Killeen describes her efforts to understand how someone who claimed to love dogs so much wound up keeping so many under such deplorable conditions. What intrigued Killeen from the first day she saw and heard the news reports describing the dramatic removal of the dogs from their wretched surroundings was that, in spite of all the opinions offered by experts—law enforcement officers, veterinarians, shelter workers—apparently none of them had actually talked to Barbara Erickson. How she or anyone could hope to understand what compelled this pathetic old woman to keep more animals than she and her husband could possibly care for properly based on such secondhand opinions? Unlike a lot of people who were intimately or tangentially involved in the case, Celeste Killeen was more interested in why it happened than the consequences. And because I’m a firm believer that the only chance we have to prevent or eliminate any negative behavior is to understand why it happened in the first place, I quickly became immersed in her narrative.
Instead of interviewing Ms Erickson using a list of questions that reflected what was import to her as a journalist, Killeen listened to Erickson, which was not always an easy task. And rather than perceiving the obviously false claims the woman made as evidence that she was mentally deranged and therefore nothing she said had merit, Killeen recorded their conversations and took copious notes. Then she interviewed those who had known Barbara Erickson, her husband and others who interacted with the couple and/or the case, made more notes, and asked more questions. And like all good reporters, she checked any facts using multiple sources.
After she did all that, Killeen pieced together a narrative of events based on what she learned during this process. Unlike some journalistic offerings, she does not present her version as the truth. Quite the contrary. She fully acknowledges from her own response to the event that hoarding is a subject that elicits strong emotions. And as most of us know, there’s no shortage of people who erroneously equate the strength of their emotions and the personal opinions that accompany these with truth. Fortunately for the reader, Killeen is not one of them.
Had the book ended there, it would have joined that increasing population of books written by journalists that presume to represent the truth or to which naive readers assign that power. But Inside Animal Hoarding does not follow that possibly more entertaining but, to me, ultimately more frustrating and irritating path. Instead in Part Two of the book Arnold Arluke, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University and author of many books and articles on human-animal interactions, discusses the case of Barbara Erickson and her 552 dogs in terms of what is actually known about hoarding.
Arluke begins by providing an overview of hoarders that, like closer examination of most animal-related phenomena, reveals some similarities to the common stereotype but challenges some aspects of it, too. For example, there are different kinds of hoarders and different degrees of hoarding within them. The thought that some rescuers fall into this category may not be surprising to some, but may be quite disconcerting to others.
Using news reports, Arluke then describes how the media perpetuates the long-standing view of hoarding as eccentric behavior. How this is defined and what emotional spin is put on it may be more of a function of human bias than objective reporting, with hoarders portrayed as cruel, “loving too much,” and everything between. Opinions of humane society and other animal-care professionals as well as members of the law enforcement community regarding what motivates a hoarder were also presented in the media as if these were based on known facts. Given the endless repetition of such reports, it’s no wonder that the public comes to accept these opinions as true.
The reality is that we know precious little about what causes some people to amass large numbers of animals. In fact, after reading Arluke’s discussion of possible theories and contributing factors, it strikes me that while hoarding is often viewed in terms of numbers, it’s more a question of that person’s fundamental view of animals. That is, it might be possible for us to be hoarders of a socially acceptable number of pets if the symbolic meaning we placed on those animals blocked our ability to see them as beings of a different species with their own unique physical and behavioral needs that it was our responsibility to fulfill. In that case, it would be the willingness to cling to any belief about them and/or our relationship to them that blinds us to their needs that would be the real problem.
Animal Sheltering Magazine
The Humane Society of the United States
Over the past decade, animal hoarding cases have increasingly made the news—but that may not mean there are more hoarders now than there were 20 years ago. It may simply mean that people have become more aware of hoarding as a community problem, one affecting vulnerable animals and vulnerable people. That’s a relatively recent viewpoint. The cultural understanding of hoarding has grown, and more communities now realize that intervention in an animal hoarding situation will often require the expertise of multiple agencies and organizations. The latest contribution to the growing perspective on hoarding is Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs. The two-part narrative—the first written by a social worker, reporting on a particular Oregon hoarding case, the second by a sociologist who provides a broader perspective on that case and the general issue—is a compelling read.
Celeste Killeen, the social worker, tells the story of Barbara Erickson, whose farmhouse was raided in 2003. “Based on preliminary investigation and rumors, the deputies expected to find fifty to one hundred dogs living on the tiny farm. Instead … the officers found over five hundred diseased and emaciated dogs suffering under conditions that could only be described as otherworldly,” Killeen writes. Killeen uses some unusual tactics to tell Erickson’s tale. While much of her par t of the book is straight reporting based on her experiences researching the case and her interviews with the Ericksons, their neighbors, and local authorities, at times Killeen also
draws on interviews to reconstruct incidents and conversations from Erickson’s childhood. These scenes provide terrific narrative tension and insight, but may make readers wonder about the
accuracy of the events they depict, many of which took place decades prior to the 2003 raid.
Sociologist Arnold Arluke draws on previous research into hoarding to expound on Killeen’s account of the Erickson case, providing a broader scope and linking the specifics of Erickson’s experience to the evolving cultural understanding of hoarding and a variety of theories on
causes, prevention, and treatment.
INSIDE ANIMAL HOARDING:
By Arnold Arluke and Celeste Killeen
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Review by Sally E. Bahner
Barbara Erickson’s life was shaped by a childhood of abuse, neglect and abject poverty. Forced to give up her beloved dogs and a baby, she sought refuge in her dogs as an adult and a fantasy history that bore little resemblance to her life as a hoarder. That refuge became an obsession that culminated in one of the worst documented cases of hoarding behavior.
"Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs" is divided into two distinct sections. In the first, Celeste Killeen, a Family Preservation Specialist working in Boise, Idaho, reconstructs Erickson’s life and the events leading up to the public disclosure of her miserable existence in Eastern Oregon.
However, the book goes beyond the details of Barbara Erickson’s case. The second part, written Arnold Arluke, a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Northeastern University, is an in-depth analysis of hoarding behavior, from what makes an individual a hoarder to society’s response.
Local newspapers regularly report hoarding incidents. Connecticut has had more than its share with cases found within the past couple of years in West Haven,Westbrook, Bethany and Seymour. All too often there is little explanation or resolution. The question is always asked: How did this happen?
Celeste Killeen set out to answer that question by exploring Barbara Erickson’s life,which she describe as a "search for love." Born Sherry Hawkes, Erickson was the daughter of poor farmers who barely eked out an existence in Washington State. She lived a miserable, lonely existence of poverty and abuse, escaping only to work at menial jobs. To compensate, she collected dogs and created a fantasy life that she said included serving in the Navy and nursing. By the time she landed in Oregon with her husband Bob, they had been evicted from various properties in Idaho, Wyoming, Oregon and Washington State, each time leaving behind destruction and squalor resulting from their hoarding of dogs. Killeen picks up the story in January 2003, at the time of Barbara Erickson’s arrest. Townspeople in Harper, where the Ericksons were living is their worst conditions yet and Barbara spent her days camping out in the Walmart parking lot selling puppies, were vaguely aware of the circumstances. (Hoaders are secretive about how they live and the exact number of animals they own.) However, once prompted, an army of law enforcement officials and rescue and humane society volunteers descended on the house to remove, house, treat, and in many cases euthanize Erickson’s 552 dogs. They were clearly traumatized by the experience.
Jailed, Erickson insisted she was doing no harm.Like many hoarders she insisted she loved and was devoted to caring for her "babies." In the end she was sentenced to 60 months probation and limited to two dogs. Regular visits from probation officers and health problems limited the number of animals she and her husband had, but she steadfastly maintained her devotion to them.
While the Erickson case is about as extreme as it gets, many cases here in Connecticut have had all the same hallmarks: People (often women) claiming to love their animals, living in utter squalor, but denying that anything is amiss. Most recently, purported dog breeders from Bethany, Jeffrey and Bella Boyarsky appeared in court for a third time, but did not enter a plea. They are facing 78 counts of cruelty to animals following the December 2008 seizure of various animals in poor health and without adequate water and shelter. How society and the legal system react to such circumstances is analyzed by Dr.Arnold Arluke in the second half of "Inside Animal Hoarding."
Only a small body of research examines hoarding from the viewpoint of the hoarders. Most of it is based on unscientific reports and observations of anyone who has an opinion about hoarding.
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) focuses on hoarding as a public health issue rather than a human-interest story. Taking a psychiatric approach to hoarding, HARC looks at issues such as the relationship between a chaotic childhood and later hoarding and identification of proper diagnostic labels.
A variety of psychological explanations are used to explain hoarding behavior, ranging from obsessivecompulsive disorder to delusional disorders. Arluke discusses an attachment disorder called insistent caregiving in which the individual devotes as much time possible giving rather than receiving care. He says that people fall into a "folk diagnosis" in regard to animal hoarding since no official mental health category can be agreed upon.
Arluke says hoarding behavior is not always taken seriously by investigators and the press. It’s often brushed off as an illness or eccentricity or animal loving gone too far.
The cultural role must also be factored in: the lack of access to spaying and neutering, the large number of stray and abandoned animals, shelters full to capacity and people who enable hoarders by using them as a drop-off for strays, and inaction or lack of intervention by authorities. Intervention may be restricted since there may be no danger to the community despite the compromised living conditions,which are often reported by neighbors. Arluke also delves into the role of the media in presenting
the stories of hoarders. Often, he says, they talk to everyone involved in the case except the hoarders themselves.
They give the impression that hoarders’ animals are euthanized because they’re unadoptable in their current condition. Arluke says they don’t report the behavior issues that make the animals unadoptable, nor the feelings of staff members euthanizing them. In addition journalists de-emphasize the severity of the animals’ neglect by providing few details, focusing instead on the conditions of the hoarders’ homes.
The legal system is poorly equipped to deal with the ramifications of a hoarding lifestyle. According to legal statutes in all states, animal hoarding violates animal cruelty laws, but it is difficult to charge these individuals, who face only misdemeanor violations. Legally, hoarding is viewed as neglect rather than abuse – the term used is passive cruelty. A lighter hand of the law is also due to the lesser social value of animals, says Arluke.
That leads to Arluke’s concluding questions: What does this say about our treatment of animals? If it’s up to hoarders to take in stray animals,why are they ignored? "Inside Animal Hoarding" is a must-read for journalists, rescue and shelter workers, social workers and psychologists – anyone whose path is likely to cross that of a hoarder.While Killeen’s section reads like a surreal novel that you can’t put down, Arluke provides the insight to a personality that has confounded and fascinated people since the reclusive Collyer brothers were found dead in their junk-filled New York apartment in 1948.