The Costs of Animal Hoarding
If your organization had to step up tomorrow, would your work break the bank?
by Jyothi V. Robertson, D.V.M.
In 1997, a nonprofit shelter with an annual intake of approximately 12,500 domestic animals and a contract to provide animal control for a county of approximately 700,000 people took on a large-scale hoarding case. Approximately 240 goats were confiscated and held long-term, at the shelter and in several leased rural locations in the county.
The case pushed both shelter staff and the shelter’s expanded volunteer pool to the breaking point. Many of the goats were pregnant, and the total number of animals jumped to nearly 340 goats within a couple of months. To make matters worse, numerous goats also had serious medical conditions, including Q-fever, a zoonotic disease. The workload, stress, and animal population density levels were enough to cause the burnout and loss of many valuable employees and volunteers. The disease led to at least 10 employees becoming ill and close to 50 people testing positive; more than 170 people were exposed.
The toll it took on the shelter had repercussions for many years after the resolution of the case. Beyond the human toll, the final financial costs went far beyond anyone’s anticipation and stretched thin the available resources of the organization. It is a case that one of the contributing authors experienced firsthand, and an experience she hopes never to repeat.
Fast-forward 15 years. These days, major hoarding cases seem to be an increasing reality. A Web news search for the term “animal hoarding” will pull up reports of dozens of cases from across the country—and these are only the cases we hear about. Plenty more go unreported. Recent large-scale seizures include two cases in Florida where hundreds of cats were seized from two purported sanctuaries; in July, nearly 300 dogs were rescued from an overwhelmed “refuge” in Texas (see Rescue Central).
In these cases, numerous organizations assisted with the rescue, but there are plenty of animal hoarding situations that communities end up tackling alone. Cases that may involve only 25-75 animals still have a tremendous impact on the operations of a sheltering facility, often draining already scarce resources. It is likely that these are well-known scenarios for Animal Sheltering’s readers: Many of you have been involved in animal hoarding cases and recognize the challenges they present.
Advance planning and understanding of the possible costs involved can help shelters meet the challenge of a major seizure—it certainly would have been beneficial in the goat case. If a fairly accurate estimate of workload hours and cost had been determined ahead of time, the whole saga could have been handled more realistically and efficiently. While not ideal, in a case like this one, involving large numbers of farm animals, the animals might have been impounded on the original property, with resources set aside for their care. If the big picture had been in focus from the outset, the court case and legal proceedings might have been expedited, or a plea bargain reached early on. Being prepared with a plan based on a realistic assessment of the resources required may have saved many people a great deal of stress and illness, and the organization a great financial burden.
It’s that kind of planning that allows The HSUS, for example, to respond to multiple large-scale rescues a year—a mission that, according to director of cruelty response Adam Parascandola, could not be accomplished without careful advance planning; key components such as housing, SOPs, and obtaining custody are best put in place before seizures occur.
This article’s goal is to help other organizations be prepared. Many hoarding cases involve such neglect, so many suffering animals, that organizations with a mission to prevent these things feel rightly compelled to act. And while handling large numbers of animals will always be a challenge, it doesn’t have to push your organization to the outer limits. A plan represents a foundation to get your organization—and the animals—through the crisis. A cost assessment also provides documentation you can show donors and funders when trying to raise money to cover the costs of dealing with a major case, and can provide persuasive material when arguing for forfeiture and bonding laws that will protect your organization from being stretched beyond its financial capacity.
Finding—and Explaining—the Bottom Line
For those of us with firsthand experience of hoarding cases, even the word “hoarding” can bring visceral responses—the smells, the sounds, the sights of multitudes of animals suffering in small, cramped spaces. The word also elicits feelings of dread in many who’ve been responsible for handling these cases, because we know what’s involved: Making space in already crowded shelters. Caring for huge numbers of animals for an undetermined amount of time—animals who will undoubtedly need medical attention, and may be under-socialized, fearful, aggressive, or feral.
While most of us in animal sheltering understand the financial, as well as emotional, toll these cases place on our individual agencies, what is the actual cost of a hoarding case for our community? And how do we present this information to stakeholders outside our agencies?
Over the past two years, the authors of this article conducted interviews with personnel from city and county departments throughout the country that work closely with animal welfare organizations involved in animal hoarding cases. Staff in public offices—including mental health, code enforcement, police, and fire departments—all offered perspectives on their role in animal hoarding cases in their communities. From those interviews, we’ve developed a cost-calculator that agencies can use to plan for a hoarding case, including assessing future costs, identifying cooperating agencies, and educating key stakeholders on the large financial burden these cases place on a community. Accurate identification of the time, money, and resources needed to handle a case will let shelter managers assess the potential impact of the case on the shelter’s other programs and services. Additionally, the calculator can provide the thorough documentation needed for strategic planning, fundraising, and advocacy.
This cost calculator, online in spreadsheet form, reflects line-by-line the financial components of a case, from the initial call to the daily care of animals. We’ve included individual hourly salaries and time allotments to account for staff hours, along with the cost of tangible items such as vaccines. While actual costs will likely vary, the spreadsheet offers a framework that almost any agency can build upon to fit their situation.
Calculating the Costs of a Case
The first step in determining costs is to identify the key stakeholders involved in a particular case, and the time and money spent on resources and staff by each independent agency. One of the values of budget forecasting is that it forces all participants to define their roles. Animal sheltering organizations are clearly primary players directly impacted by animal hoarding. Collateral agencies, such as law enforcement, code enforcement, fire departments, mental health agencies, health departments including public health, child protective services, adult protective services, environmental health, and legal departments, can address other aspects of the case and reduce the likelihood of recurrence. A detailed list of primary stakeholders and their responsibilities is identified in the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium document, “Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk,” and is summarized in our online extra (see Resources, below). What should be clear is that animal hoarding impacts entire communities and, regardless of the size of the case, requires effort from many different departments for an effective resolution.
The next step in preparation is to define and assign a cost value to each step. Using the spreadsheet as a guide, each agency can estimate indirect and direct costs.
Based on our interviews with responding agencies, below is an example of how the stakeholders play a role in the initial case development and how we make an accurate assessment of the financial cost of their respective roles.
An initiating event—such as barking dogs or the stench of ammonia—may trigger a neighbor to call either law enforcement or animal control. If there are concerns with the structural integrity of the home or property damage, code enforcement or the fire department will likely be the first responder. Regardless of who receives the initial call, the preliminary process is usually similar, and should be included in time/cost calculations. Central dispatch or office staff obtains background information on the particular situation from the caller. They cross-reference the address in a central database, and note any prior law enforcement and animal control activity at the address.
Depending on the complexity of the case, a supervisor will often come in to discuss next steps. This initial background process takes on average 10 to 15 minutes. To make an accurate assessment, determine the average salary for each person involved in the process—dispatcher, supervisor, etc.—and tabulate the average time they spent on each step of the case.
Animal control officers in the field go to the location to make an initial assessment. A police officer accompanies them if the call is initiated through law enforcement. Tally the time spent by all officers in calculations; typically, these can be itemized as (salary of $X per hour) multiplied by (hours spent) = total cost.
In some of the smaller-scale cases we assessed (cases involving multiple animals in poor condition, but not the hundreds of animals seen in some of the worst situations), the agencies quickly took steps to rescue the animals. In 98 percent of cases, authorities will first need to obtain a warrant to enter the premises. The tiny fraction of cases where this might not be required typically involve circumstances where officers can see an animal in an immediately life-threatening situation. If there is any question, always try to get a warrant; it can make a difference later in court.
At this point, animal control contacts other departments such as fire, code enforcement, and public health to strengthen the case and add credence to the report. Obtaining a warrant involves multiple people in multiple roles, including city attorneys, clerks, and the judge. It is a time-consuming process that can take many man-hours. For each of the staff involved in this process, calculate a cost based on individual salaries and time spent working on the case.
Once the warrant is obtained, staff will transport the animals to a veterinarian or perhaps an emergency veterinary clinic, depending on the circumstances; here, transport costs ranging from gas to staff hours to rental vans costs come into play.
Wherever seized animals are to be housed—at the shelter, in an offsite warehouse retrofitted for sheltering, or in a seize-on-property situation—staff will be needed onsite to provide veterinary services and basic daily care, including feeding and cleaning of cages. While having a solid volunteer corps can be a godsend in these situations, staff time will still likely be needed, and depending on the number, species, and condition of the animals involved, this process can require hundreds of man-hours—all of which should be taken into account with estimating costs.
In large-scale cases, weeks may go by with many people involved in formulating an appropriate plan for the animals and obtaining appropriate documents. In all situations, having appropriate memorandums of understanding (MOUs) or mutual aid agreements (MAAs) between departments in place ahead of time will greatly expedite the process and reduce the overall costs of the case, by reducing staff time. MOUs outline the role of each agency so the process of handling a case can be streamlined, eliminating unnecessary steps. Sample MOUs are available through the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium website.
Housing and Supply Costs
Along with staff time, you’ll need to consider the costs of the physical resources necessary to manage a hoarding case. This account provides supporting documentation for reminding donors and funders that these are resources that have been diverted from your agency’s standard operating costs. While officers are in the field, staff at the shelter must prepare for the animals they will likely be impounding: gathering supplies, preparing cages, and lining up medications for the potential onslaught of animals.
- Check out our website for law enforcement resources that can help you with your cases.
- For a Web extra listing supplies and equipment you may need for handling a large hoarding case, and a list of the roles various agencies play, click here.
- For a sample template to calculate hoarding costs, check out our cost template.
- PetSmart Charities provides emergency relief grants for groups managing hoarding cases. Click here and scroll to Emergency Relief Funding.
- Find lots of resources on animal hoarding at the website of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium through Tufts University, including the report "Animal Hoarding: Structuring interdisciplinary responses to help people, animals and communities at risk."
In some cases, shelter managers will have to make decisions about the existing population: Adoptable animals may need to be transferred to local rescue groups or neighboring shelters to free up cage space for seized animals. Animals in their stray hold periods may remain on premises, but will need to be housed in a separate area, to minimize spread of disease between case animals and the shelter’s incoming population.
Animals from hoarding cases often need to be kept on premises until they are no longer needed as evidence for the criminal case and can be permanently removed from the owner’s legal custody. If a large number of animals are impounded, agencies may need to rent warehouse space to accommodate all of them—an additional cost to report. Hoarding cases require the purchase of a large number of provisions for an indefinite period of time. You’ll need to account for the direct cost of these materials, noting them as separate line items. Everything from facemasks to vaccines adds to the cost of these cases (see Resources, at left, for a sample checklist of items needed for an initial response). Some are one-time expenses; others are ongoing and dependent on the length of stay for the animals. Staff and volunteer supplies, such as appropriate personal protective equipment and food, should also be included in your calculations, as should animal feed, bedding, and cleaning supplies. Many animals from hoarding situations require ongoing medical care, so you’ll need to tabulate both the medical supplies and the time it takes veterinary staff to treat animals, in your assessment. Proper planning for a case includes having necessary items in a ready-to-go seizure kit and keeping the list on hand for staff to easily access.
When a Plan Comes Together
An organized approach to hoarding cases, one that includes budget planning, leads to humane, cost-effective results. You can use the spreadsheet template as a guide to begin discussions with collateral agencies, and help create a customized interdisciplinary agreement that allocates accurate time and resources. It’s helpful to establish ad-hoc or regular committees, with a stakeholder from each collateral agency, that will meet at minimum twice yearly, and debrief after each case to modify and update interagency cooperation, allocation of time, and resources.
Just as “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” an interdisciplinary framework, with a mutual understanding of resources required, may enhance cooperation in expediting these cases. The human toll, animal toll, and costs may skyrocket due to the often exceedingly long shelter stays for these animals, but if buy-in from the various stakeholders can lead to speedier trials and resolution of these cases, then the final calculation will be a “win-win” for both the animals and the bottom line. n
Lynn Loar, Ph.D., LCSW, president of the Pryor Foundation; Bonnie Yoffe-Sharp, D.V.M., city veterinarian for Palo Alto Animal Services; and Sandi Stadler, superintendent of Palo Alto Animal Services, contributed to this article.
Read the rest of this issue from Animal Sheltering magazine