William Hanson and his wife Tammy are again in trouble with the law—and, as animal hoarders, their pattern of illegal behavior is as highly predictable as it is unsettling. They were convicted of animal cruelty charges in Arkansas in January 2006, and then fled for Vermont. They resumed similar destructive behavior in their new state, and Mr. Hanson failed to appear in court after Vermont authorities visited his residence and found 30 dogs living there, including four locked away in terrible, unsanitary conditions. When police returned to the property last week, they found it empty. No dogs, no Mr. Hanson.
His wife is now in custody, fighting extradition to Arkansas, but Mr. Hanson is a fugitive.
The scene at the Hansons' Every Dog Needs a Home in 2005.
I’ve previously described our post-Katrina emergency relief effort at Every Dog Needs a Home, the Hansons’ property in Gamaliel, Ark., in October 2005. Hundreds of animals were living in squalid, unhealthy, and dangerous conditions at what had become a classic hoarding operation. Tammy Hanson’s conviction and pre-sentencing disappearance provided momentum to the successful drive for a felony upgrade of the Arkansas animal cruelty law earlier this year.
In its various forms, hoarding jeopardizes the lives of several hundred thousand animals every year in the United States. Approximately 1,200 to 1,600 cases surface annually, a number we fear may be rising in light of factors that include the current economic downturn. Hoarding cases put a tremendous practical and financial strain on local humane societies and law enforcement agencies. When The HSUS stepped in to assist local law enforcement in the Hanson case, it cost us more than $100,000 to secure the site, stabilize the condition of the animals, and move them to shelters from which they could be adopted out.
Typically, hoarding is an activity with obvious psychological roots, and in many cases it verges on serious mental disorder. Many who have studied it consider it a consequence of serious attachment disorders, and as a recent book by Celeste Killeen and Arnold Arluke, "Inside Animal Hoarding," demonstrates, there is usually an unfortunate and often a deeply tragic personal history behind every hoarding case. Punitive treatment of offenders is not a complete response. The perpetrators also need psychological attention and treatment—otherwise, we’ll see an inordinately high rate of recidivism.
Our state anti-cruelty statutes were not drafted with animal hoarding in mind, and generally do not facilitate effective prosecution and resolution of such cases. We need a broader range of public policy solutions focusing on hoarding, and that’s something we’ll be working on in the states in 2010 and beyond.
Hoarding is a maladaptive behavior that endangers animals by forcing them to live in filthy, injurious, and life-threatening conditions, and hoarding cases are a reminder that the severing of the human-animal bond comes in many unpleasant varieties. The HSUS produces videos on the phenomenon and conducts workshops on hoarding at the community level, at regional conferences and at Animal Care Expo. It’s going to take a major response to address the problem in a comprehensive way, so that people like the Hansons don’t just skip from state to state and leave a trail of shattered animal lives in their wake.