A curious breed of pet owner starts out with one or two animals and ends up with dozens — even hundreds. This creates a nuisance for neighbors, a health hazard for animals and owners, and havoc for agencies that must swoop in for a rescue.
Last year, authorities in Tulare County charged a woman who owned 32 dogs and cats and whose home had 6 inches of cat feces under the kitchen table and cat carcasses in a freezer.
In August, authorities filed animal-cruelty charges against a woman near Strathmore who said she was running an "animal shelter" inside her home -- which contained 140 dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, ducks, a cockatoo, parakeets and a chinchilla.
And in October, rescuers removed 116 cats from two Fresno County homes; the floors of one were caked with cat feces, officials said.
Psychologists have a label for the puzzling behavior: animal hoarding.
"It's a delusional disorder," said psychologist Randy Frost, co-author of "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things." Those who hoard animals "don't have the recognition that this is a problem. They let the animals take over the house. They begin to live under the animals' rules. The house gets filthy."
The phenomenon can involve any species -- most typically, cats are hoarded, but authorities find dogs, horses, goats, rabbits, birds and even tigers. The stench can be overpowering, and usually neighbors are the first to notice.
"There's an 'ugh' factor," said veterinarian Gary Patronek, vice president for animal welfare at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and a former Tufts University professor who has written academic articles about animal hoarding. Patronek said three or four cases come across his desk each day.
Animal hoarding in itself is not a crime, but when animal shelters get involved in rescuing scores of sick animals, taxpayers get stuck with the tab -- $20,000 per case is typical, according to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
In Fresno and the county, the Central California SPCA provides animal-control services under contract and rescues animals in hoarding cases. It spent an estimated $19,000 removing and caring for cats in a recent case.
The American SPCA estimates that there are 2,000 to 3,000 cases annually across the country, involving thousands of animals and averaging 200 animals per incident.
Denial is common
Karen Simmons, 63, of Fresno, doesn't see herself as an animal hoarder -- even though animal control officers took away her 116 cats -- but she fits the profile: A hoarder is usually a woman who is middle-aged or older, can't properly care for her animals and denies there's a problem.
"I'm extremely insulted," Simmons said. "I hate to be considered 'crazy.' "
Simmons said she was heartbroken to lose her cats. They give "unconditional love," she said. "Each of them knew me and I knew them. They are so loving and caring and smart."
She denies that she was overwhelmed by caring for the cats that were confiscated by the Central California SPCA. "I was doing everything right," she said, including having her cats spayed and neutered.
But one neighbor who spoke on condition of anonymity said the east-central Fresno neighborhood was so overrun with feral cats coming out of Simmons' home that he bought two humane traps and caught 25 cats over the years. Two other neighbors said the cats regularly used their flower beds as litter boxes.
The SPCA said many of Simmons' cats were sick, although Simmons said major diseases were never a problem. They have since received veterinary care and are available for adoption at the River Park adoption center.
Simmons' hoarding drew the attention of authorities when she allegedly brandished a knife at her 89-year-old mother, who had told her that the SPCA had issued an order to clean up the cats' living quarters within a week. No charges were filed in the brandishing case.
Simmons' niece, Jennifer Freeman of Fresno, said her aunt is in need of mental health services and she is trying to get them for her. But Simmons said she's never been diagnosed as mentally ill and would like her niece to butt out.
The cause of animal hoarding is unknown, but researchers say animal hoarders often report a childhood of "neglect, abuse and chaos where the rules are never clear," said Frost, the psychologist.
Simmons said that sounds like her childhood: Her father drank from 3 p.m. to midnight daily, her parents never displayed affection and her relationship with her mother was difficult.
She graduated from Fresno State, served as a Navy officer in Texas in the 1970s and was married twice before returning to Fresno in 1988 with four dogs and eight cats. She lived in a home on East Fairmont Avenue owned by her mother and worked in the family apartment rental business.
Simmons took in about 10 cats more each year -- strays, she said. She housed many of them in large pens in the backyards of the Fairmont Avenue home and another near Kerman where her mother lived, spending $800 monthly on food and kitty litter. Two or three years ago, she moved to a trailer on the Kerman property and shuttled back and forth to care for the cats.
She says she's caring for eight cats now.
When animal hoarders get caught, they usually start accumulating them again, and sometimes move to another state to do so, said Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of the American SPCA's forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects.
"Without efforts at therapy, reoccurrence is virtually 100%," Lockwood said.
Local animal control officers said they run into two or three cases of animal hoarding a year and most involve well-meaning people who get overwhelmed.
In Visalia, a jogger called police in September to report a bad smell coming from a home. When animal control officers arrived, they found a middle-aged couple -- and more than 50 cats.
"They were fully aware they were overwhelmed," said Valley Oak SPCA animal control supervisor Justin Helt. Because the cats were in good health, Valley Oak is removing them a few at a time to try to find new homes for them. Even though they were kept indoors at all times, many were "semi-feral" from lack of regular interaction with humans, he said.
In Lemoore, police were tipped about another couple who took in strays and shared their home with about 50 cats.
"They had some really good intentions," said Teri Rockhold, animal service director at Kings County Animal Control. Rescue organizations are gradually removing the cats for adoption, she said.
But some cases veer into animal cruelty -- and criminal charges.
In 2005, Clovis police removed 15 dogs, 16 puppies, 11 cats and two birds from a home after getting many complaints from neighbors about the stench and barking dogs. The owner, Diane Carolyn Anderson, was charged with six animal-cruelty counts; she eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.
"She didn't see anything wrong with what she was doing," said Betty Cochran, supervisor of animal control services for the city of Clovis. "We see that with most of these people."
In 2006, Sandra Werner of Seville was sentenced to 10 months in jail for animal cruelty. She had 82 malnourished horses, several dead horses, 30 dogs, goats and an injured steer on a ranch.
Last month, Coral Kerr, 64, of California Hot Springs pleaded no contest to one felony count of animal cruelty. Kerr, who kept dead cats in her freezer, had 12 dogs and 20 cats inside her home that were removed by authorities last year. She got raided again in August, and seven dogs and 16 cats were taken away. A judge ruled last month that she could keep one cat and one dog.
Neighbors had complained for at least two years of a bad fly and odor problem coming from Kerr's property.
"In the summer, we couldn't sit on our patio because the smell was so bad," neighbor Colleen Boland said.
Animal hoarders sometimes try to justify their actions by saying they are rescuing animals that no one else wants, experts say.
Linda Corsiglia, who lives near Strathmore, said she was trying to save animals "from being killed at the shelter" when authorities came to her rural home and found 140 dogs, cats, birds and other animals inside her two-story home. Many were undernourished and in various states of declining health.
Feces littered the home, dead animals were stored in boxes outside and a deputy saw three dogs attacking a smaller dog that was barely alive, according to court records.
"I got overwhelmed, I admit it," said Corsiglia, who is fighting animal-cruelty charges. But "the animals need us."