After ten years of fostering more than 100 cats, I have a few thoughts about it. (So do my own three former rescue kits.)
Who Is at Risk of Becoming a Cat Hoarder?
I’m absolutely sure that exactly no one ever has gotten up in the morning to announce, “Hey, today I will begin hoarding cats!” While a simple web search will offer articles about why people hoard, how to spot a hoarder, and how to help a hoarder (rarely), most are written as though there is a bright, clear line between us (legitimate rescue organizations) and them (the mentally ill animal hoarder).
The Answer Isn't so Simple
No one seems to see the descent into hoarding as something traceable. However, let us just pretend for a moment that such things exist on a continuum, and all of us involved in fostering animals in our homes could somehow slip down that continuum and become hoarders. What are the warning signs? How can we prevent that outcome?
When Good Intentions Go Bad Over Time
Most online information about animal hoarding consists almost entirely of “legitimate” rescues trying to explain how they are not hoarders. In that process, they tend to demonize the hoarder.
HARC's Take on Animal Hoarding
The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium (HARC) harshly differentiates between legitimate rescue efforts and hoarding, which it claims is “about satisfying a human need to accumulate animals and control them . . . ” rather than about concerns for the welfare of the animals. HARC admits that hoarding “may start out as a seemingly benevolent mission to save animals,” but by using the conditional “seemingly,” they avoid the idea that perhaps good intentions go bad over time.
The ASPCA's Take on Animal Hoarding
The ASPCA offers a nice list of signs that may indicate someone is an animal hoarder and goes further by saying that some hoarders masquerade as rescue organizations. Neither group acknowledges, however, that it's entirely possible for perfectly sane people to start a legitimate organization and that sometimes it can go terribly wrong. Such attempts at brightly defined terms accompanied by the urge to demonize emerge when the identity of one party is threatened by the similarity it bears to another party. This kind of response does as much to mask similarities as to define differences.
A Look in the Mirror
Be honest with yourself. How many times in your life have you been out with friends who you truly appreciate, but then suddenly wanted to shout “I’m not with them!” when they did something terribly embarrassing? For a split second, you are almost willing to disregard all the good things about your companions simply to protect your own perceived identity. In the real world (not particularly social media, but that’s for another longer article), we generally don’t abandon our embarrassing friend, but rather sort out the good and learn to deal with the bad (and sometimes that “bad” is really something we love).
Why Not Rescue the Rescue?
In an attempt to legitimize all “good” rescue organizations by protecting them from the taint of the “hoarder,” we might miss the chance to intervene in a borderline case before real damage is done. If, indeed, hoarding is a mental disorder (it has earned that designation in the U.S.), most likely it doesn’t strike overnight. While the urge by legitimate rescues to distance themselves from the hoarder is understandable, maybe it would be more useful to try to rescue the rescue rather than merely bemoan its demise. Can we see trouble early? Maybe.
Why Don’t We See It Coming?
What I offer here is anecdotal. I have seen a few foster parents teetering on the edge of hoarding before friends or other volunteers stepped in. In all cases, the warning signs might easily be misread as a normal response to the prospect of giving up an animal you’ve learned to love.
Face it: You took this animal in when it needed you the most and when it seemed like the rest of the world rejected it. It has grown to trust you in a world where it has known nothing but a betrayal of trust. You may even have nursed it back from the edge of death, and now you are going to send it off into the unknown.
On top of that, there are the general vagaries and bureaucracies of dealing with the adoption process itself. If you were not prepared or aware of how that process would work, you may not be as willing to let go.
Normal Foster Parent Emotions and Concerns
It's entirely natural if you:
- worry about the fitness of the adoptive parents,
- are concerned that the animal isn’t ready,
- are sad anticipating this impending loss, and
- are afraid that you, like others before, are somehow betraying the animal.
All of these concerns and feelings are exceedingly normal. We can learn to mitigate our concerns with the realization that we:
- have done what we could and have done it well;
- may not be able to provide the absolute best forever home for the cat, especially if we take on too many;
- can do more good by making room for another animal; and
- know that the adoptive parent will inherit great joy with the pet.
Perhaps for some of us, something destabilizes this balance between normal concerns and mitigating realities. I know one foster mom who followed through on adoptions perfectly until she became an empty-nester, then she slowly began to adopt more cats than she gave up. In talking with her and others on the edge of trouble, I realized they shared some commonalities.
Warning Signs That You Are Becoming an Animal Hoarder
Of those I’ve known who began to take on more cats than they could handle (but never reached the point where they were truly neglectful), each one:
- developed a growing belief that no one else could be trusted with their animals,
- resisted rehoming foster cats when there were obvious behavioral problems between cats in the house, and
- exhibited an unwillingness to share responsibilities with other volunteers.
Some volunteers went so far as to begin taking in cats from other agencies without telling anyone.
When Taking a Break Is Necessary
One such foster parent was even forced to take a long vacation from fostering and persuaded to help abandoned animals in other ways (volunteering at the shelter and with fundraising). After a hiatus and some therapy (for other reasons), he eventually began to take on foster cats again and seemed to have broken the urge to hoard them. This may be only one instance, but it is enough to make me wonder if the downward spiral into hoarding can be stopped or even reversed.
Why Early Intervention Is Necessary
If there is no bright line between us and them, can it hurt to be alert to signs that things might be slipping out of control? Sheer numbers can’t be the best indicator. Any of us who look after multiple litters during kitten season might count our cats and wonder, but we all know that we may have an empty house in three months even if at the moment we need all fingers and toes to count the kittens. However, checking yourself for burnout is a good idea.
How to Prevent Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
Stop and gauge your feelings about your current fostering experience. Answering "yes" to the below questions does not particularly indicate you are heading to hoarder-ville. However, too many affirmatives could suggest that you close to burning out and due for a break:
- Is the act of fostering no longer making you feel more hopeful? Are you, instead, feeling desperate and out of control? Does it always feel as though you aren’t making enough of a difference to the point where you can no longer celebrate the happy endings?
- Do you find yourself consumed with worry over recently adopted fosters? Yes, we all hope and wonder from time to time, but if you find that worry takes control of your day and interferes with your enjoyment of the cats currently in your care, you may be heading in the wrong direction.
- Do you trust the organization(s) you are working with, or do you spend more time finding fault with them than working with them?
- Are your foster cats the first excuse you reach for when explaining why you're in a bad mood or neglecting other responsibilities?
- Have you had more than one “failed” foster in a year’s time?
- Does the rest of your life feel out of control? If you have suffered a setback or a loss recently (like being let go from your job or a death in the family), have you been escaping that by losing yourself in your foster chores?
Taking a Break Doesn't Mean Defeat
Let’s face it; if it has stopped being good for you, it can’t be good for the cats. Taking a break doesn’t mean you are abandoning the cause. You can still get some quality kitten time in by volunteering at a local shelter or adoption center. You can also still contribute to the cause by helping with fundraising and events.
Possible Ideas for Prevention
Rescue groups might want to consider helping to mitigate some of the stress on fostering families and encourage confidence in the process by being transparent from the beginning about adoption policies and attitudes toward euthanasia and vet care. More often than not, organizations are too worried about losing good foster parents, and foster parents are too focused on the animals. As a result, their partnership lacks the kind of communication needed to maintain trust on both sides.
Having said that, we fostering families need to take responsibility, too. Be humble, be honest with yourself, and stop to take stock occasionally. As long as we want to help, each of us is at risk of falling into an unmanageable situation, and we need to confront that.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2019 Hat Whit
Sophie Turner from Los Angeles on June 23, 2020:
It makes a massive difference. Choosing the right technic can be pretty tricky. Thank you so much for writing; this was helpful!