NAPLES — It is a cruel paradox.
Animal hoarders, some of the most prolific perpetrators of shocking animal neglect, are people who think of themselves as animal lovers, according to experts in psychology and animal advocacy.
In 2006, animal services officials in Collier County seized 31 cats, two rabbits, two dogs and a bird from the home of a woman in a classic animal hoarding case.
According to a report, most of the animals were underfed and sick, the floors were littered with animal waste, and the ammonia smell from cat urine was so powerful the investigator described a burning feeling in her eyes and lungs. Yet officials said the owner grossly underestimated the disaster her house had become.
The cats, she told an investigator, were her life. She threatened suicide if parted from them.
In September in Collier County, a judge banned another woman, Tina Ciancaglini, from owning horses again after officials reported she had consistently taken in more horses than she could feed. They found 34 were malnourished.
Researchers of animal hoarding say dealing with the problem is not as simple as freeing the animals and punishing the perpetrators. Hoarding is a behavioral disorder, not necessarily intentional criminal neglect.
The research has inspired animal services officials to take multiple approaches. These include taking the animals away, banning the person from owning animals again and trying to establish mental health counseling. In extreme cases, prosecutors may pursue criminal charges.
An animal hoarder is someone who collects a large number of animals but gives them substandard care, said Randy Lockwood, a psychologist who coordinates anti-cruelty initiatives with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Hoarders, he said, fail to recognize or act when the animals' conditions begin to deteriorate.
"The denial reaches so deep that they seem oblivious to the presence of dead and dying animals," he said.
The ASPCA has estimated there could be between 900 and 2,000 new animal hoarding cases a year in the United States, with 250,000 animals mistreated.
The two most commonly hoarded animals are cats and small dogs, although rabbits, farm animals and even snakes have been victims.