Big warning up front: Terry is an animal hoarder. I said this in a message to Matt Paxton last night as the episode aired: yes, it’s incredibly difficult to watch an animal hoarder and to think of the agony their pets have endured. But. If the Hoarders teams didn’t find them and stop it (and remind the viewing audience to pay more attention to the potential hoarders in their lives), these people would continue to neglect and unwittingly abuse their animals under the radar, probably for years to come.
It’s awful. We’re all in agreement there. And if you need to practice self care, then you’ll want to scroll past Terry to Adelle under the jump. But real good was done on last night’s show, if you need to have that reassurance.
Terry, Hanover, Illinois
Terry, a sweet-faced and gentle older woman, says how much she loves cats. “I always thought the more the merrier.” We see her pull out paper plates and slop wet cat food onto them. There are several. She lays them on the dirty floor of her home and the cats come running. Scores of them. Well, many are not running. The home is crumbling at the edges. The shoe-board trim has been clawed off, the edges of walls are rotting away, and the wood floors are buckling, having been perpetually soaked in cat urine and other spills over years’ time.
There are multiple litters of kittens stumbling about, nursing off their mothers, being force fed wet food on the end of Terry’s finger. Many cats have filthy, crusty faces and bloodshot eyes. Since so many of the cats are strays that have come in from neighboring farms, they’re not exactly “potty trained.” Piled in the corners (and in one case, almost covering the entire kitchen floor and its counters) are what look like dusty balls of old wool – years upon years of decaying cat feces.
Her family and best friend – Dave, Dave’s girlfriend Amber, and Elaine, respectively – all speak to how kind and loving Terry is. “She’d give you the shirt off her back.” Terry fundamentally believes that she is saving these animals’ lives, as so many animal hoarders believe. Why, if she didn’t care for them, who would? They’d be wild out in the fields facing who knows what dangers. These well-intentioned people forget that cats are perfectly capable of caring for themselves. (But if you can locate a Feral Friends-type clinic, please don’t forget to spay and neuter your pets or any feral cats you can.)
Her son Dave has reached his breaking point, however. His mother cannot continue living like she does, and it’s simply cruel to have more animals trapped within ammonia-soaked walls. Ammonia is a poison, and it’s slowly but surely killing these animals. (And her.) If Terry doesn’t seek help, the sheriff will be called and actions taken.
I don’t know when we’ve had such a clear cut “here is why I hoard animals” show as this. When Terry was thirteen, her father had a heart attack in front of her. Young and frightened, Terry watched helplessly as he died right there. She blames herself for his death because she couldn’t help him. (Oh, bless your heart. I ache for her knowing that she’s thought that for decades. It just happened, that’s all.) She cries piteously as she tells the story and how she’s afraid of death. She wants to help these cats not die. Obviously, she can’t magic them to health and immortality, so when her animals do die off, she’s all the more miserable.
And she stores them.
The plan is to have them cremated after they’ve died, but she can’t bring herself to do that. So she puts them in the freezer or fridge, either wrapped in a bag or tinfoil or just laid on top of the others. She estimates there are about 75 to 100 animals in her fridge. Well, that’s a first.
She opens the fridge and begins sobbing, stroking the stiff fur of one cat in particular, repeating over and over through her body-wracking sobs that she’s sorry. “I just feel so awful; I’m a failure.” This is not a cruel woman; she doesn’t have a mean bone in her body. This is a woman that has been so traumatized that she cannot make healthy mental decisions in her life.
I want to point out that Hoarding has officially been put into the DSM-V as a mental illness. This is not some “whack job,” this is not someone who’s just “dirty.” This is mental illness, through and through.
Dr. Zasio arrives and after standing in the main room for no more than two minutes, she turns to Terry and says, “Sometimes I have to be the bad guy and say things directly. I’m seeing cats with significant eye infections.” She wants Terry to recognize that she’s harming these animals that she loves. Terry begins to cry. Dr. Zas holds up a kitten and says, “This little guy has no options. You’ve got to give him some and let him go, okay?”
Terry, her face the picture of misery, nods and quietly says “Okay,” before crying again. She has good intentions, she truly does. But – as the doctor says – without a clear plan for how to follow through on those intentions, it becomes a bad plan. A very bad plan.
I think this was one of the better episodes they’ve had in a long time as far as showing the process of how they break through with the hoarder, how they work through the steps of recognition, acceptance, and then finally get them to act. Dr. Zas says to Terry that she bets Terry is so deep into this, in such a dark place that she can’t even conceive of how to get out. I think that’s the crux of addiction, depression, all of those dark places that people become stuck in.
The answer is simple (in theory): you need help.
The first step, of course is recognition. She has got to see what the reality of her “help” is for these poor animals. Dr. Zas opens the fridge and gasps in horror, backing away from it. She’s found the morgue. “I’ve never seen anything like this before in my life.” She asks Terry point blank (but not without kindness, because Dr. Zas is that woman who looks like she would just love to give you a hug if you’d let her): is stashing bodies in a fridge and letting them rot and decay honoring your love for them?
Terry wanders through the house, stroking the fur of any cat close enough to reach, cooing loving statements as she sees them. She has such a kind heart. It’s just unfortunately paired with a very sick mind.
The mobile vet service arrives, and it’s the fantastically stern-faced (for humans only – animals get her tender expression, as it should be with all excellent veterinarians) Dr. Patricia Norris. Matt Paxton is right behind her, but he and his crew have to wait for the animals to be removed. And everyone is in full bio-hazard gear with re-breathers. It’s bad.
Dr. Norris explains that the cats will be removed from the house, triaged, and those who can be helped will. Those who are suffering with no recourse for treatment will be swiftly and humanely euthanized It’s such an awful thing, snuffing a life, but what life have some of these animals had? The reality of that sinks in as Terry sees some of her older cats brought out, listening to the diagnoses.
A new vet for the show, Dr. Hubner, talks to her about her favorite, Slick. He explains how bad the cat’s health is. He can no longer eat from all of the abscesses in his mouth, is emaciated, and has an upper respiratory infection that is viral. There is no cure. (And many of the cats are infected with this virus, we’ll learn.) The only answer is to put Slick down and end his misery; that’s the hard job of pet owners – reconciling with yourself that it is your duty to make that awful decision.
“I’m so sorry,” Terry whispers brokenly to Slick. “Thank you for being so kind,” she tells the vet. She is now almost inconsolable. She can barely speak as she sobs, “This is killing me. And it should kill me.” The guilt and shame she feels at this point is almost incapacitating. Dr. Zasio helps her through breathing exercises so she doesn’t hyperventilate. She talks Terry through her emotions: she needs to feel that guilt. She needs to feel that shame, that sadness.
But more importantly, she needs to get away from those feelings in the end. She needs to remember how awful that felt, make the connection to her actions, and learn – not unlike a child touching a hot stove – that she can’t repeat those actions without physical (or emotional) pain.
Now that she’s in the place where she is, the real clean-up begins. The snow shovels are out, animal control pulls out hidden bags of dead animals from closets, and a biohazard team stands at the fridge. It’s her last step, and it’s the most important one. They have her remove the animals from the fridge and place them in black bags to be cremated. She has to make that final connection with death and with her role in it.
(It’s fascinating to me that someone so afraid of death has essentially surrounded herself by it for years. It’s as if putting them in a fridge means she’s delaying the inevitable. They’re only dead when they’re physically gone.)
Shockingly, it’s not just cats in the appliance: she has birds from outside, mice, rabbits, even road kill. Anything that’s died near her has been carefully brought into the house, wrapped, and stored. She begins sobbing again, saying that she’s not worthy to “be here,” so ashamed of herself and where she’s gone in life. When they find the crisper drawer at the bottom of the fridge filled with a noxious liquid (animals have been decaying in there. From dust to dust… But, you know. Squishier), they decide she’s done enough. She’s close to hyperventilating again. She’s gotten the picture; there’s no need to torture her, as well.
Dr. Zasio makes her promise that she will never, never do anything like this again. Terry quickly makes that promise.
Dr. Patty says in her “can you believe this?” voice (I really love that lady, I have to say) that both the Humane Society and local Animal Control have been notified to monitor her. If she ever begins acquiring animals, they’ll prosecute. So take that to heart, fellow animal lovers.
The drywall is pulled off, new air vents are put in (just in one section of the house, but it’s to make a livable space for her) and new trim is installed around doors and windows. A full biohazard clean up had to be done, and it’s not far off from what has to be done to a meth house; that’s about as unlivable as it gets. Cement sub flooring has to be sterilized and resealed, the walls taken down to the studs… It’s like rebuilding your house from the ground up. That the show did as much as they did was pretty spectacular.
After clean up, they bring her into a nice, tidy room and she’s very gracious and humble here. They also cremated the euthanized animals and have a lovely heart-shaped container with the ashes for her. But they want her not keep the ashes – it’s fundamentally important for her therapy to let them go. Thankfully, she does. She stands at a bridge and slowly shakes the ashes to the water and wind, letting them all go both literally and figuratively.
Her family hugs her and praises her, and the shadow of death and fear that has hung around her since the start of the episode seems to have faded.
After the show:
Out of the 49 living animals in her house, 18 were taken to shelters to find new forever homes. 31 were released from this mortal coil, so to speak, and more importantly, released from their suffering.
Terry is working with a therapist and doing well emotionally. More importantly, she has stuck to her promise and has not acquired any new animals and is being monitored by local authorities.
Awesome work, Dr. Zas, Dr. Patty, and Matt. That was rough.
Adelle, New Hampshire
Boy, if there was ever a kookier, more interesting gal on this show, I sure can’t remember. Well, okay, I just need to go back a season, but hey, this lady is a corker. Adelle is free spirit and quite the crack up. She’s also deeply, deeply into her mental illness of hoarding. Adelle is an older woman, retired, and calls herself a “big time hoarder!” with relish. She is the queen of adapting. No way to wash clothes inside? No problem, there’s a kiddie pool and a hose. The toilet stops flushing? Watering can filled in the tub and if you pour it just right, you can get it to swirl down the drain. Cat litter buckets make fantastic impromptu toilets, did you know? Sure the hoard has spread outside, sure it’s incredibly unsanitary, but she carries on with a smile and a joke.
It’s no joke to her children, though. Both grown, and both incredibly bitter – the joie de vivre seems to have skipped a generation – neither her daughter Mary nor her son Dirk are willing to take her in when her house will be condemned (if nothing is done). “She would bring us down,” they both say. There’s not a lot of love lost here for their mother.
She’s always been a hoarder, we learn, but her divorce to her children’s father amplified it to a point where the children were removed from her care. We’ve seen this before: the sheer resentment at being put aside for the sake of “things” drives a hard wedge between children and mother. And I get it. Adelle gets it, too. Well, as much as she’s able. She knows that a part of her hoarding is her trying to cram things into the empty space in her heart where her children once were.
This isn’t Adelle’s first clean up. She has a social worker, Lisa. Lisa had five different agencies from the county show up just to clean her kitchen. It took five days. Five teams, and five days. Adelle smiles and says that the kitchen stayed clean, too! For…two? Three whole days? Oh, this is going to be a tough one.
The jovial Mark Pfeffer arrives; she immediately calls him Dr. Pepper. And then she starts flirting. It’s really harmless, and he knows it, but he also wants her to know that he’s here to work and she’s being inappropriate. She starts telling him that she studied Microbiology back in school and uses those “sterile procedure” techniques to prepare her food and keep things clean.
“That’s certainly the comment of a career hoarder if I ever heard one,” he laughs later on the camera.
She proudly shows him her slop bucket in the kitchen (that also doubles as a make-shift commode). She teaches him how she “flushes” the toilet when she’s in the filthy bathroom. She displays her beautiful spider web up in the corner that “catches more flies than I could.” Mark takes it all in, and it’s a lot to take in.
Dorothy Breininger and the Got Junk trucks arrive with over twenty crew men. Dorothy’s there, so there are some hurting kids (even though they’re the grown variety). They immediately get to work sorting, and Mary asserts herself as the mother of the group, bossing everyone around and being pushy. (Mary is probably in her 40s.) Dirk, in sunglasses, stands around being a whiny brat about things. “I don’t wanna!” is his attitude. The man is 51. He actually says, “It’s hot, and I don’t want to work.”
How much do you want to bet that this is the way he talked as a kid when he was taken away from his mother? He looks like he’s a successful adult, but here he is nothing but the embodiment of arrested development.
Dorothy brings this all to Mark’s attention, who puts them into a bit of role play. Switch roles, and talk to the other person. It breaks down to Mary being bossy and Adelle being flaky. Mary, as her mom, starts yelling about elder abuse, which shocks Adelle. This is how her children see her? Yep. They think she’s distant, focused on herself, and selfish.
Speaking of, Dirk doesn’t show up on time and is a petulant baby about it when Dorothy calls him out.
Dirk: Don’t light into me! I call my own shots.
Dorothy: Clearly. (Oh, I love sarcastic, angry Dorothy.)
Dirk: (nodding) Get used to it. Don’t blame me (in reference to his mother’s behavior.)
Mark: No one is blaming you. Just help us help her.
At that Dirk walks off without another word. That should help… Mary tries to defend him, saying that it’s how her brother copes – he walks off.
That is not coping. That is avoiding. Coping is how you deal before you resolve problems. There is no resolution of problems in this family, which is the main problem.
Dirk eventually comes back and the family sits down to address these old patterns. Dirk tells her that she’s alone because she treats people poorly and is selfish and arrogant. (Arrogant?) He also believes his mother to be jealous of him and Mary because they have good lives; he says this after she made a comment about how they have things “made in the shade.”
But..she wants them to have good lives. She wants the best for her children. “Well, you should be [jealous]. Your life is a train wreck.”
It’s pretty hard to watch this with Mary smirking at her brother, like “You tell her!” and seeing the confusion on Adelle’s face. I have no doubt that these two children suffered emotionally for years because of their mother’s mental illness. I have no doubt that they still feel that keenly. But not having an emotional connection to anyone involved, I can see how shocked by all of this Adelle is (and see the hurting teenagers that Mary and Dirk once were, and how quickly they’re falling back into that place of hurt.)
They all address the real problem, the abandonment they felt by her, and her inability to actually control her hoarding, and decide to get back to the clean up. 6800 pounds of garbage are removed from the house, no small thing. Mary takes her mother to a salon for a makeover, and Adelle comes out – no joke – looking about twenty years younger. The crew used that time to clean up the house and arrange Adelle’s furniture and other things to make the house look like a proper home and not a city dump.
When she sees her things looking so lovely, she says that she promises to not “back slide.” She is tickled at her home looking nice for a change. She now has a useable kitchen, bathroom and bedroom.
Things were removed from the home, but it seems there’s still a huge blockage in the doorway in the shape of her relationship with her children. That is going to take a lot longer than four days to repair, unfortunately.
After the show:
Adelle continues to bring things into the house and is having difficulty letting go of more items. She is working on this, though, with a therapist and organizer.
This is going to be the one we come back to visit and find that it’s gone back to the original state, I bet.
Edited to Add: I just read a message from Lisa, Adelle’s social worker, who stated that she is NOT continuing to hoard, and that the title card at the end of the episode was inaccurate. She’s making excellent strides in her recovery, and I am beyond happy to report that I was wrong. :)
I was talking to my husband about the episode (he can’t watch the animal hoarders) and realized that this show is responsible for a huge portion of my growth as an empathetic adult. I don’t mean that I was a jerk or anything before Hoarders, just that my knee-jerk reaction to some of these behaviors was to look away with disgust, to not try and understand why people do what they do.
Obviously I don’t condone abuse. But this show breaks down the human condition in such an “in your face” way that you can’t help but learn. We have women that have been physically assaulted who build literal walls of garbage in their house. People who see loved ones die in traumatic ways that affect their ability to deal with all the stages of death and grief. People whose homes have burned down, who have been robbed, abandoned, abused, all of the awful things that can happen to our fellow human beings. And the connection gets made between the trauma and the resulting behavior.
The more we see, the more we learn about how people react to their world, the more we can learn about ourselves. I know, I know, this is all obvious to many of you, but I just wanted to take a moment to commend this show for really opening my eyes to so much more than just a mess. I’m not here for any rubber-necking. I’m here to bear witness to the human condition and learn more about who we are as a species, honestly.