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Cat burglar
The 60 cat corpses in Heidi Erickson’s Boston apartment bear witness to a largely ignored psychiatric disorder: Animal hoarding
BY CLEA SIMON

SOFT, FURRY ANIMALS and gruesome, bizarre behavior: this unlikely pairing — tailor-made for tabloid headlines — has been grabbing media attention since April 28, when Boston’s Inspectional Services Department raided a Beacon Hill apartment to find five malnourished cats, an equally mistreated Great Dane, and more than 60 feline cadavers, most — but not all — of which were frozen.

The macabre saga continued as the apartment’s sole human occupant, Heidi Erickson, took on the city, claiming (as reported by the Boston Globe) that the charges against her were "fabricated" and "trumped up," despite damning evidence of animal mistreatment — "as extreme a case as I’ve ever heard of," says Carter Luke, vice-president of animal protection for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). Then, after missing a May 1 court hearing, Erickson — who has identified herself as an amateur breeder of Persian cats — nearly got herself thrown out of the next hearing for arguing with Judge Manuel Kyriakakis. At that hearing, Kyriakakis, chief judge of Boston Housing Court, barred her from the Charles Street apartment and took the more unusual and extreme step of prohibiting Erickson from ever again living with cats in the city. The drama ramped up further May 7, when a second apartment rented by Erickson, this time in Watertown, was found to house 52 sick and malnourished cats and another dozen feline corpses.

All the cats (and the one dog) have been removed to shelters. Police have also collected a variety of veterinary drugs from both locations, several of which (including a form of estrogen used on dogs) seem implicated in Erickson’s reported goal of "perfecting" the white Persians she bred. Necropsies of the dead cats are being performed at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton. Depending on the results, Erickson, who thus far has represented herself at the hearings, will face a variety of charges. Just this week, Boston’s Inspectional Services Department announced plans to seek criminal charges on 10 counts of animal cruelty.

Her outlandish doings have proven to be the cat’s pajamas for a postwar media looking for the next big story. In the Boston Herald (which has given the story extensive coverage), headlines like deja mew and fur bawl have played up the saga’s voyeuristic appeal. But in all the fuss from pet lovers and reputable breeders, and amid all the testimony from disgusted neighbors and former landlords, the real story has gone almost unnoticed. Talking to Herald reporters after the housing hearing, Erickson gave it away. "I’ve lost my family of cats," she said. "They’re my family," she repeated to Watertown police, and several sources have quoted her describing herself as "bereft" of her "babies." It took until this past Monday for the Boston Globe to identify Erickson as suffering from a particular psychiatric disorder. Despite her heated rejection of the diagnosis — which, some would say, only confirms its applicability — Heidi Erickson is a cat hoarder.

ANIMAL HOARDING — of which cat hoarding seems to be the most common manifestation — is one of the weirder psychological phenomena. Hoarders, as animal-control professionals (who prefer the word to the more innocuous-sounding "collectors") call them, take in or breed animals to the point where they can no longer care for the pets or, frequently, themselves. Nutrition, veterinary care, and sanitation go out the window as the animals pile up. Sanity goes as well, as most hoarders lose the ability to recognize the unhealthiness of their situation. To a hoarder, the animals are family and anyone seeking to relocate them is kidnapping kin, often removing the hoarder’s only source of emotional connection.

Giving something a name doesn’t excuse it. But animal hoarding has come to be recognized as a psychological condition. Gary J. Patronek, director of Tufts Center for Animals and Public Policy, has been studying hoarders for years. In 1997, he founded the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC), a coalition of professionals in psychology, sociology, veterinary medicine, epidemiology, social work, and animal protection. The group defines a hoarder not by the number of animals kept, but rather by the condition in which they are maintained. According to HARC, a hoarder not only accumulates a large number of animals, but also fails to provide minimal nutrition, veterinary care, or sanitation; fails to act on the deteriorating condition of the animals or the environment; and fails to act on or recognize the negative impact of all this on his or her own health or well-being. HARC has turned up some frightening statistics. In a 1999 study, it found about 2000 cases of hoarding nationally each year. While not all cases are as extreme as Erickson’s, most hoarders (76 percent) are female and more than half live alone, as Erickson does. At 42, she’s younger than the 46 percent of hoarders who are 60 or over. But her actions do match the 80 percent of cases in which dead or sick animals are found, and the 60 percent in which the hoarder does not acknowledge a problem. Other anecdotal details — for instance, the way Erickson supposedly tried to cover the stench with air fresheners and by sealing her windows — fit the mold as well. (Many of the studies substantiating these statistics are linked to the group’s Web site at www.tufts.edu/vet/cfa/hoarding/index.html.)

Patronek’s group has published several papers exploring the idea that hoarding may result from a combination of disorders. In elderly subjects, it may be an early sign of dementia. Other research has suggested connections with delusional or attachment disorders, perhaps explaining the emotional bond between the hoarder and her or his animals — and the hoarder’s alienation from fellow humans. But perhaps the clearest link is with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), with which hoarding shares several symptoms. Like OCD sufferers, hoarders can experience what one HARC study describes as an unrealistic sense of responsibility to their animals and unrealistic expectations, as evidenced by hoarders’ often calling themselves "saviors" and describing their charnel houses as "shelters" for their animals. OCD is also often linked with ritualistic collecting of inanimate objects.

Although there is no accepted treatment for hoarding, some studies suggest prescribing medication that works for delusional disorders (such as antipsychotics) or OCD (such as certain antidepressants or anti-anxiety drugs, like Paxil). But nothing works all the time. In fact, the prognosis for hoarders — and the animals they get their hands on — is grim. Patronek’s research reports a recidivism rate of nearly 100 percent.

Cats aren’t the only animals that get hoarded, although the MSPCA’s Luke estimates that they do account for about 75 percent of the cases he sees. (Luke, a member of Patronek’s consortium, also confirms that most cat hoarders are women: "There’s something about women and cats," he says.) Hoarding of reptiles, birds, and multiple — sometimes exotic — species has also been reported. "But if you have 80 dogs, people notice," he says. "That’s more of a rural thing."

His office handles about a dozen cases of hoarding each year, although rarely are they as extreme as the Erickson situation. Often, he says, a family member intercedes. "We get calls, ‘Hi, Mom’s out of control. Can you help us?’" The MSPCA’s mandate is to take care of the animals and consider cruelty charges. The hoarder usually remains untreated.

SO WILL HEIDI Erickson be treated as a psychiatric patient, or as a criminal freak? The smart money is on the latter. For starters, despite the obvious similarities between Erickson’s actions and the disorder model, experts like Patronek and Luke are unwilling to diagnose her as a hoarder without having met her (although Patronek does add that "it sounds like a sad situation"). Spokespeople at the Animal Rescue League of Boston (which received the 52 Watertown cats) likewise decline to label her a cat hoarder; this group, like the MSPCA, focuses on the care of the animals, not their purported keepers.

Even if, as seems likely, Erickson is confirmed as a hoarder, there isn’t much the state can do. Legally, the issue involves not her mental health, but her sanitation and her care of animals. The Inspectional Services Department (ISD) deals with people rather than animals, but it doesn’t delve into the motives for their actions: "We don’t identify animal hoarders, just generic conditions," says John Dorsey, ISD’s assistant commissioner. And there’s little public outcry for treatment. Erickson — an obstreperous, solitary woman — fits into a long history of cat-associated female loners, dating in the US from Salem’s purported witches, who have been ostracized and criminalized by mainstream society.

Instead, it is likely that she will face fines or jail time (up to $1000 or a year’s imprisonment for each charge) if found guilty of animal cruelty. After that, there’s the near-perfect certainty that she, like most hoarders, will once again begin to gather animals. There isn’t much that animal-protection groups can do. Many shelters, says Ted Clark, the Animal Rescue League’s director of public relations, keep a list of known hoarders, but there is no formal registry. "The real bad folks are known," says Clark. "But if there’s a small local shelter, where they may not know that person ... well, it’s not hard to get animals, and it’s not a priority of lawmakers."

In some ways, say those who care for animals, the media’s voyeuristic spotlight may have a real bright side. Along with its Grand Guignol appeal, this unfolding story is also providing some public education, and that’s the only real hope for helping hoarders — and their victims. Luke, for one, applauds the attention and the ensuing public outcry. "It used to be that these folks were thought about as just ‘the crazy neighborhood cat lady,’" he says. "You find a cat [and] you take it to the cat lady, without recognizing the harm that’s being done to the animals, to the humans, and the sanitation. What’s new is the recognition that this is not a benign lifestyle choice."

What’s also new is the attention being paid to cats, who historically have been considered less important than dogs. Cats, says Luke, are still taken for veterinary care only about 60 percent as frequently as dogs are, but that’s up from about half as often five years ago.

Also, at least in this one case, if the prognosis for Erickson is unclear, the cats’ futures are a little brighter. For now, the troubled felines are receiving medical care and proper food. Their cages are clean. While some of the cats remain in Boston’s care, the majority are in the Animal Rescue League’s Pembroke isolation ward, where, Clark says, "our job is to make them as healthy as possible."

Eventually, he hopes a judge will grant permanent custody of the cats to the League, and the group can offer them for adoption. But such a happy resolution "is going to be months away," says Clark. "They need to be rehabilitated, and the court has to figure what’s going to happen." In this ongoing saga, he explains, these cats aren’t merely victims or potential pets. "They are evidence in a law-enforcement case."

Clea Simon, the author of The Feline Mystique: On the Mysterious Connection Between Women and Cats (St. Martin’s, 2002), is working on a mystery series featuring a cat-loving amateur detective. Visit her Web site at www.cleasimon.com or e-mail cleas@earthlink.net

Issue Date: May 16 - 22, 2003
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