Warning for tonight’s episode: John is an animal hoarder. Regardless of the disease, I know many of you simply cannot deal with that topic; fair enough. Vivian’s story is so heart-warming, though, that I recommend skipping ahead to her story and end up with a smile on your face.
This is one of those episodes where we really will be struggling to remember that this is a disorder, and the person with it truly does not see the world the way we’re seeing it. It’s going to be hard, though, make no mistake.
JOHN, CAPE MAY, NEW JERSEY
John is a retired corrections sergeant who now lives alone in his modest ranch home. John has cats. “I have too many of them,” he nervously laughs. The camera (in many cases fiber-optic cameras snaking into walls and other crevices) pans over the house showing cats in various ages from kittenhood to old and doddering. Not a one looks vibrant, active, or happy.
George is John’s friend. He finds John’s house to be inhabitable. The camera shows sections of flooring and baseboards that have completely rotted away – from cat urine. The linoleum floor is almost totally obscured by packed earth. But we learn quickly that it isn’t dirt, it is compacted fecal matter. A kitten hops from bare space to bare space.
John believes he is doing right by these animals. They’re with him, and he loves cats, ergo, this is better than being euthanized in a cold shelter. We see him sweeping one section of floor, and as the camera pulls back, I literally gasped. I’ve not done that since Lisa ate the unknown black thing from her fridge. John pushed murky brown liquid, litter, tissues, dirt, and a bungee cord into a pile and calls it a day. This is how the vast majority of his floor looks. It’s one of the most awful things I’ve seen, I don’t know how he can live in it, let alone the animals.
There are plastic kiddie pools here and there, filled with litter and even more fecal matter. A few cats poke their heads out of the ceiling. They’re clearly trying to get anywhere clean in the house.
The authorities have been notified of the animals’ living conditions and have ordered him to remove the cats, or they’ll be forcibly removed.
John has lived in this house for decades, most of that time with his mother. The two were inseparable. The spent their off time cat hunting, believing they were helping cats off the street. At one point they had almost 70 cats in their small home. They were too afraid to ask for help.
They had a plan: they would cordon off one room and convert it into a “cat room.” It never happened. The room became a catch-all for junk and the door kept closed. John’s mother died in 2008 and the cat population dwindled to twelve cats. But John looked to his animals as a support during his grief, and now he believes he has something close to 30 cats in the house.
One cat in particular means the most to him, Chiefie. He found a frail, weak kitten near his job and took it home. Chiefie is blind, had physical issues, but is a friendly black cat. He is also skin and bones.
John tells us that he did make an effort to spay and neuter his cats, but he always seemed to miss one or two. He also believes that he’s giving them good care. He has good food for them, keeps the water dishes fresh, but then there are all of those kiddie pools of litter… He also believes the majority of them are healthy. The simple fact is that John is not qualified nor equipped to handle this number of animals, and as a result, they are being neglected and are all ill.
George tells us that he visited John a month ago and had a sore throat for days from breathing in ammonia. Fact: ammonia is very corrosive to soft tissue. It’s also a heavy gas, so animals left on the floor are breathing in far more than those able to live in the ceiling. It also is corrosive enough to eat through flooring and walls, as we’ve seen.
Dr. Liz Moore will be his therapist during this seizure of animals. She arrives in Wellingtons, which I found very smart. She immediately comments on the smell, amazed that he seems to be unaware of it. She tells us privately that her eyes immediately started burning. She grabs a mask and actually has difficulty speaking to him, because the smell is so overpowering. For a moment it seems like she might actually vomit from the smell. That’s a first on this show.
The house is eerily quiet. He again states that he has about 30 cats. Cats are not quiet, they talk. Not hearing anything is a bad sign. They see one cat as they move through the house, and Dr. Moore can’t help but point out that the animal looks very sick; John says it’s because of how hot it’s been outside. They move to the kitchen. John’s cabinets are skirted with a decorative kick-plate, with the gap in the scrollwork about two or three inches at most. There is a cat wedged in here, barely moving.
Dr. Moore calmly tells John that, without being dramatic, these animals’ lives are at stake. Multiple SPCA vehicles arrive. The investigator for the SPCA tells us that they’ve been out recently and found the conditions to be horrific. Every animal must go. Every one of them.
Matt Paxton is here to head up the cleaning, but before he can do anything, all of the cats must be captured, photo-documented, and transported for medical attention. Drs. Norris and Falcichek are the forensic veterinarians on call, you might remember them from Hannah’s episode. They set humane traps the night before and were able to capture 17 animals. They’ll catch the rest by hand.
John looks panic-stricken. His eyes are huge, he looks afraid, and he’s looks like he’s tunneling inward, unwilling (or unable) to deal with the severity of the animals’ situation. But…he loves cats, and he’s trying to help them? This is the illness, and it is painful to see. It’s very easy to villify him, and assume he’s a scumbag. He isn’t, he’s just very ill.
As the animals move through triage, they are all significantly underweight, some of them to the point of emaciation; they’re weak, and many of them have white gums – this indicates fleas. The parasites are literally sucking out their blood so there are no red blood cells in their body. Dr. Falcichek says plainly that forcing animals to live like this is torture.
John continues to look completely detached from the situation. Dr. Falcichek is angry at the lack of emotion, but I think John has gone far, far away from all of this. “But…I love cats. I’m helping them?”
Dr. Norris climbs up to examine the ceiling for more animals and finds an entire litter of kittens that have died. She also finds a juvenile cat that has died. As she carefully brings their bodies down, that’s when my first bout of crying began. I won’t act like this episode didn’t affect me, I would hate to think it wouldn’t, honestly.
The doctors confront John, angry at the situation they’re all finding themselves in. He just doesn’t know how many animals have gone in the ceiling there, it’s been eight years of that behavior. Dr. Norris’ eyes widen and her jaw drops. She lays into him, “It’s your responsibility! Not the mama cat’s, yours. You can call for help!” She tells us how bothered she is by his lack of emotion. I honestly don’t think he’s psychotic or anything unfeeling, I think he’s completely detached from the situation so he doesn’t have to deal with the pain of knowing how harmful he’s been.
More cats are caught living in the walls and ceiling. They find Molly, a tortoiseshell calico that is lethargic. She looks like the cat living under the kitchen cabinets. She’s very sick. She’s given birth recently, and is in poor shape, to the point where Dr. Norris and Dr. Falcichek hold her and give her IV fluids right then and there. They can’t transport her until she has them. We see Dr. Norris rubbing her head, soothing her and saying kind words as they gently put her in a crate and hang the IV bag. Let’s take a moment to thank these women for what they do; talk about thankless and heartbreaking work.
They put on masks to hunt deeper in the house, and can still barely breathe. They open a door and the smell of death rolls out, they say. There are dead kittens and juveniles a plenty in this room. The mother didn’t have it in her to care for them, we have no idea if Molly was the mother. All of the kittens are desiccated and covered in flea dirt. They were literally sucked dry by fleas, which killed them. Honestly, I didn’t even know that was possible.
They’ve removed 22 live cats at this point and eight dead animals, recently dead, not the dried, years old corpses. This is all on Day One. They’ll make another sweep in the morning to make sure they’ve checked everywhere.
Day Two starts with sad news. (Tissue alert.) Molly did not survive the night. The vets tell John this. He has a very bizarre reaction, “Huh. Damn. Really? Damn.” It’s all just spoken, no inflection. Almost as if he’s trying to remember how to put emotion into speech.
I will say this: Molly died in a clean facility filled with people that cared for her. It’s a better end than the others met.
He thought the vets would get there in time; he didn’t think any would be as ill as they’re proving to be. They bring out Chiefie and tell him how sick his favorite is. He’s a skeleton that is covered in patchy fur, sores, and flea bites. They tell him the grim reality: Chiefie might have to be put down. (That got his attention from whatever fantasy he’d escaped to.) Dr. Norris, shaking, tells him that “I pray to God you make the right decision for that cat!”
Matt is finally able to bring a team into the one room that was meant to be for the cats. The cats had found a way in there (through the ceiling and walls) and dragged their babies in there; away from the fecal matter and filth of other rooms. But Matt finds dead kittens there, as well. The bottom foot of the entire room is garbage that is soaked in urine. It all has to go. His team is wearing hazmat suits and rebreathers. The entire room is just awful.
John deals with the situation with Dr. Moore. He says that he is scared, and whispers to her, “I’d rather it’d been me. I’m in a great deal of pain right now.” John really isn’t equipped to deal with the severity of this.
29 total cats, alive, have been removed to a shelter, 13 recently dead animals have also been removed. John is charged with animal cruelty. He is incredibly distraught by all of this. The vets recommend that he not have any animals in the future. They tell the camera that people need to intervene. Don’t wait to notify authorities, help the person get help, or call yourself. I agree.
Because he willingly gave up all of the cats, they knock his fines down to $1600, which he quickly paid. Good for him. He has a lifetime ban on owning any future cats imposed. However, he is allowed to take Chiefie back, who is now healthy.
They are monitoring him closely.
I have asked Dr. Norris if the animals were sent to a specific shelter for those of you that might be inspired to make a donation. A general donation to your local SPCAis always a good idea. The NJ SPCA center in Cape May, where the majority of cats were sent, can be reached at 609-465-8923. Call them for donation information or to help them meet any special needs remaining.
“My family is my life.” Vivian is a homemaker in California who has raised five children in her 4,000 square foot home on the hill. Her house is her museum – dedicated to the lives of each child. She likes having something to look at everywhere she turns. At first it all appears orderly. Neat stacks of boxes, albeit stacks six feet high, and garment bags are draped here and there. Then you see that it doesn’t end. Everywhere there are stacks, boxes, memorabilia and we start to see layers of dust the further in we go.
“I like everything about what I’ve picked.”
Scott, her son, comments on how she can throw nothing away. Scott is a sweet-faced, quiet man who clearly loves his mother, although he is frustrated by her. Victoria, her daughter, is a beautiful, kind young woman with a streak of decisiveness in her. She says that the hoarding has affected all of them.
Sylvester is her husband. “The purpose for why God invented the garage,” he says in a thick Eastern European accent, “is to put two cars in it, and not to create a warehouse out of it.” He’s an engineer that thinks analytically. If you have only so much room, then you can logically only put so much into the space. He is so frustrated by the hoard that he bought a home in Detroit, half a country away, to escape. He does have a business there, but still. He stays there for six months at a time.
Vivian and Sylvester love each other, but they can’t live together with the hoard between them. They weren’t always like this, they were “the perfect couple and family” living in a grand house on the hill. But Vivian had her fifth child, a beautiful little boy named Stanley. She came in to see him as he slept, and essentially saved him from dying of SIDS when he was five months old. As a result, he was mentally and physically impaired. He has the body of a 21 year old, but the mental capacity of a child that is seven.
This led to Vivian being a caregiver and not having time to devote to her home. She says, “I had an emptiness I needed to fill.” It’s amazing the self-awareness many of these people have, isn’t it? It’s the “but I don’t know what to do about it” that leads to the negative behavior. I do wish the show showed more of that aspect of treatment. “When you want to fill your home with a thousand dolls, tell yourself x strategy.” But then, it would be specific for each person, so.
In 2009, Vivian had another tragedy strike. Her firstborn golden child, John, took himself to the hospital with complaints of throwing up blood. Frustrated, he left the hospital in direct opposition to what the doctors wanted. He went to sleep, and never woke up again. Victoria says baldly that John was the favorite, and this devastated her mother, leading to a hoarding binge.
Her children clearly love her and describe her as being loving and warm (and we can see that it’s true) but she, who wants nothing more than to be surrounded by her loved ones, is driving them away because of her hoard.
Dr. Scott Hannon will help her through the process. He notices that the front room is filled with John’s things. She wanted to make it a memorial to him, but he states that she’s avoiding the discomfort of letting things go, and more importantly, the discomfort of having to assign worth to things. “This should stay, this doesn’t matter as much.” Why, that’s like saying John doesn’t matter as much, is her way of thinking.
Stanley, the sweet and smiling boy, has a room so filled, it’s mind boggling. He smiles and waves timidly at the camera crew. His room is packed with figurines, toys, games, clothes, and electronics. It’s mostly organized into piles, but it’s still chaotic and full. There’s nowhere to let your eye rest. She never thought that could be harmful, when that’s pointed out to her. She seems very upset with herself, because Vivian loves her children. She is willing to work, because she truly loves her family, and in a nice change from some of these episodes, they truly love her. They’re very supportive.
Her husband states that the hoard goes, or he goes back to Detroit, for good. Vivian wants this to work. Cue the Got Junk trucks and Ms. Dorothy Breininger. She tells everyone that Stanley is her priority, and brings such a happy, bouncy energy that they’re all ready to get to work. I’m telling you, if there are children involved, Dorothy needs to be there.
They start cleaning out Stanley’s room, and I want to point out something that is so important. If you don’t have anyone mentally impaired in your life, it may not have pinged for you. Dorothy asked Stanley what he wanted. You don’t know how many people speak to people like him as if they were half a person. I got choked up for the second time, but for the right reason.
Stanley is clearly happy with her, he holds her hands and laughs and gets very excited as they clean. Vivian is also very happy, seeing Stanley’s mood. She’s inspired to start working on the study, wanting it cleaned so Sylvester can come home and work. Make a note of that, her second priority was getting him home. She’s a good woman.
Sylvester, however, is oblivious to what is involved with being supportive of Vivian. He begins tossing things left and right, working at a very fast clip. This is incredibly stressful to her, but she doesn’t know how to articulate in any meaningful way. Dr. Hannon intervenes, and notes that they simply handle problems differently. Scott comments to the camera that his dad gets very frustrated by her, but he doesn’t blame his father.
They have a family meeting, with the doctor leading off. Dorothy is there and holds Vivian’s hand, and is it any wonder why she is my favorite? Boundless support, is Ms. Breininger. Vivian cries, she can’t speak. The kids, all with soothing and tender voices try to encourage her to talk to them, to say what she’s thinking. Sylvester isn’t one for coddling, though. He says that all of the mess makes him “pissed.” I notice that Stanley’s fidgeting increases when the parents fight.
Vivian doesn’t like it when her husband is angry. He doesn’t shout, he just takes on a stern, disapproving tone. Victoria intervenes on Day Two, keeping them separated. She tries to get her mother to understand at one point that she doesn’t need ten combs. One will work. It takes a bit, but she lets things go. Victoria instantly praises her and tells her how proud she is, hugging her mother. They tackle the doll collection. More cheers with every good decision she makes.
Dorothy comes in to praise her as well, when she sees that Vivian has given away more than 20 dolls, but only kept four. Victoria tells her that everything gone is more weight off her shoulders. Vivian smiles weakly.
She moves to the dining room to address the multiple pieces of furniture there. Sylvester says, “This is a classy room, nothing in here but for eating!” It stresses her out that he so quickly wants to remove everything. He says, “God invented this door so there’d be nothing there!” I’m sorry, but I laugh every time he starts on God’s inventions. She complains that his frustrated tone is stressful to her, but he follows her to the living room with more demands to the crew.
They bicker over the placement of furniture until Scott and Victoria shoo them out of there to give the maids a chance to clean. Sylvester gives off a parting shot, “I must have class otherwise I vomit!” The kids spend the rest of the day keeping the parents apart. Victoria does an amazing job of supporting her mother in making good decisions.
She talks sense to Vivian: every load hauled off is a load off Vivian’s shoulders. Vivian considers this and pats her daughter’s hand, giving her permission to take charge over the hoard. It’s a huge step. Things speed up measurably. Dorothy comments that out of the 4000 sq. ft. home, 3000 sq. ft. of furniture and other items have been removed.
Vivian sees the clean and orderly house and cries, wishing her children hadn’t grown up with all of the mess. Victoria takes her hands and says, “Everything you’re doing now cancels that out. I won’t even remember it.” How wonderful is this girl? Vivian is clearly touched, and they hug. They’re such a sweet family (aside from the frustrated and old-school father.)
They show us Stanley’s room and I clapped my hands to see it: so clear, so orderly, and age appropriate. Stanley is nothing but grins. Sylvester loves the house, and says this is a new page in their lives. Dr. Hannon notes how well Vivian responds to positive messages, which bodes well for her. She says that she feels “totally rejuvenated,” and that the whole process is to honor John, her deceased son. In a moving moment, she says that she “hopes he is watching over her and is proud.” Vivian is just the sweetest woman we’ve seen in a long time.
Vivian is seeing a therapist, and is continuing to work with Dorothy since the clean up. Although her marriage to Sylvester appears to still be strained, he’s home more.
(Note: I’ve asked Ms. Breininger about Stanley, and will mention any details here once I hear back. I was so pleased to see the work done for him, and how loved by his family he was. It’s something very dear to me, people with mental challenges being treated kindly and fairly.)