For the past two months, the SPCA has known about a cat collector in the Stockade neighborhood. But they haven’t swooped in to remove the animals or arrest the owner. Instead, they sent officers over every week to counsel and cajole the man into changing his ways.
It’s an unusually gentle approach that has raised the ire of some local cat rescue agencies, groups that were dealing with collectors — also known as “hoarders” — long before the SPCA formed a chapter here last year.
The more experienced groups want to remove every cat — the owner in this case allegedly has 15 to 17 — and spay or neuter them. Then the cats would be adopted out to new homes.
But the man doesn’t want to give up his cats, and the SPCA won’t snatch them from him.
“He’s of limited skills and limited funds,” SPCA chief Mathew Tully said. “These animals are his family and best friends. Our SPCA strategy in these types of cases is an arrest is the absolute last possible resort.”
So far, his officers have persuaded the man to let four cats be sterilized. But they only managed that because the cats had respiratory infections. The SPCA can force owners to take action if their pets are sick, and the threat of that force helped persuade the man to accept help.
Even then, they had to promise that the cats would be returned to him after their surgery.
None of the other cats are sick, but they’re all unneutered, and with the warmer weather triggering fertility, his hoard could multiply rapidly. Nevertheless, the SPCA is still trying gentle persuasion.
The situation is infuriating Sue Green, chairwoman of Guilderhaven, a Guilderland nonprofit that provides low-cost vaccinations and sterilization clinics.
She and others planned a raid in which they would take all of the cats, sterilize them and adopt them out. It failed because the SPCA refused to use its law enforcement powers to force entry into the house. The owner wouldn’t let them in voluntarily.
“We had planned a massive removal of cats there to be spayed and neutered at our expense, and this man did not bother to answer the door,” she said. “There are a whole bunch of rescue groups who are waiting to help. In these situations, we contact all the rescue groups and say, ‘Can you take one? Two?’ We can handle this.”
But not without the help of the SPCA. It is the only animal rights agency in the county invested with law enforcement powers — such as the right to arrest owners and allow rescue groups to take the animals away.
City officials say that hoarding animals is not illegal, as long as the animals are all well taken care of.
Green feels used by the SPCA, which asked her agency to pay for the care of one cat but won’t let her put an end to the man’s collecting.
“He needs to be stopped,” Green said. “We’re willing to work with people, but the object of any organization is the animal, the welfare of the animal.”
Green emphasized that she doesn’t want the hoarder jailed or fined. But she wants him arrested and required by law to report all future addresses. He would also have to allow unannounced inspections so agencies could make sure he was no longer hoarding, she said.
“He doesn’t need to be incarcerated,” she said. “This guy just finds them on the streets and brings them home. It’s very easy to start with good deeds and become a collector. But when you become part of the problem, you’re no longer doing a good deed.”
But Tully said removing the cats wouldn’t stop the problem.
“Hoarding is a case that involves complex mental and social issues,” he said, noting that most hoarders adopt new animals as soon as agencies take their collection away.
He thinks it’s more effective to persuade people with multiple pets to take better care of them — particularly by sterilizing them to keep the pack from increasing exponentially.
Cats can be sterilized for as little as $20 through the state Agriculture and Markets program. Four local agencies also provide low-cost sterilization in the county: Guilderhaven maintains a complete list at http://web.mac.com/guilderhaven/.
With those agencies providing the surgery, all Tully has to do is persuade the collectors to take the plunge. He thinks persuasion will work.
“This is a case of a person with limited means … who is trying to do the right thing. Going slow and steady and helping him learn from the mistakes of the past is more helpful,” Tully said. “My personal philosophy on hoarding is it’s easier for us to build a social network for that person to keep this from ever happening again.”
He knows his philosophy is not welcomed by Guilderhaven and other local agencies.
“Many people disagree with me, but the growing consensus is my philosophy is the right one,” he said. “A lot of people in the animal rights movement want us to take a much stronger stance than we’re willing to go.”
He’ll only “smack the cuffs on” in cases of deliberate, violent abuse.
“If the man has a million dollars and lives in a house in Niskayuna and just loves to watch his cats suffer, his animals would be taken away and he would be prosecuted fully,” Tully said. “This man — there’s food, there’s water, there’s fresh air, there’s no feces on the floor. All of them need to be spayed or neutered, but officially we can’t enforce that. We’ve recommended it, and we’re trying to do everything possible to avoid it becoming a criminal matter.”