Pet Hoarding Not Out of the Ordinary

By Paul Duggan and Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 18, 2005

Like people all over the country, Gary Patronek, a veterinarian who teaches at Tufts University, heard the bizarre story of Ruth Knueven and her 488 cats -- 222 of them dead, and most of the others so wild and sick that they had to be euthanized.

Knueven, 82, charged with five misdemeanors, including animal cruelty, became a public curiosity last week after Fairfax County officials hauled the cats and carcasses out of her home in Mount Vernon and her daughter's townhouse in Burke. Both residences, filthy and damaged, were declared unfit for habitation until repairs are made.

In the Mount Vernon house, authorities said, they found cats squeezed into virtually every open space of the ground floor -- in the furniture, the walls, the masonry.

Unlike a lot of folks, Patronek wasn't surprised to learn how many cats were found in the two homes, either living or reposing in little coffins of Rubbermaid plastic.

"Certainly something in the 500 range would not make me go, 'Oh, my gosh!' " said Patronek, founder of the Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium, a group of eight human behavior and animal experts in the Boston area who have been studying the phenomenon nationwide for the past few years, interviewing dozens of hoarders.

"It's not unusual," Patronek said of Knueven's huge passel of felines. "I mean, it's on the high side. But we've seen cases with over 1,000 animals, cats and dogs together."

Yet it is unusual in the Washington area: Although animal control officials in Maryland, Virginia and the District said they typically deal with a few animal hoarding cases, often involving cats, each year in their jurisdictions, none has encountered a collection nearly as big as Knueven's. She appears to hold the local record -- and by a large margin.

Fairfax police said they plan to ask a judge today to prohibit Knueven from owning pets in the future and also might seek a mental evaluation of her.

"Everybody thinks I'm crazy," said Knueven, who is staying in a motel with her husband. But she said she didn't set out to amass hundreds of cats -- it was just something that happened. She said she took in strays, one after another after another, because she wanted to protect them, and eventually they overwhelmed her. As cats died, she said, she stored them in plastic containers, intending to dispose of them. But she never got around to it.

"It's over now," she said, "and I never want to see another cat in my life."

Patronek, who also is an epidemiologist specializing in animal-related public health issues, said pet hoarding is an old problem. But only in recent years has it come under serious study. His group includes mental health professionals and sociologists from several colleges and officials of the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Cats are the most commonly hoarded pets, Patronek said, because they are easy to acquire; they are quieter, cleaner and simpler to manage than most dogs; and they interact with humans far more than rabbits, guinea pigs and other small pets do.

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