I do want to warn readers that the first story involves animals in distress (none will suffer long-term negative consequences, however.) Animal hoarders are stressful to many of you, I know. This is a very “light” case of animal hoarding; however, the problems go far beyond that. And let’s all take a moment to marvel at the people who are able to go into these situations with smiles on their face and affect real change.
MARY, Northeast, Maryland
Mary’s story starts with Matt Paxton, in black and white, who tells the camera as an ambulance races in, that Mary was found unresponsive and vomiting in her home that morning when they arrived to begin filming the clean up. She is in her bedroom in the fetal position, dizzy and having difficulty breathing.
Mary, Two Days Earlier.
Inside Mary’s home, it is impossible to distinguish items from one another. Everything is soiled and filthy, soaked in cat urine, covered in grey dreck. Spoiled food loosely shoved into grocery bags that are piled high. The floor is blackened and moist with all of this. This has been Mary’s home since birth.
Bonnie, her cousin, feels that Mary is a recluse, happy to tunnel her way through her home with her cats whom she loves more than anything, barring her home. Mary loves her home. She wants nothing more than to live there until the day she dies.
The camera pans to the bathroom, and it almost looks like the ruins of Pompeii – thick waves of black filth sweep up the side of the commode, fills the sink, spills over into the bathtub. It’s one place in the house where we do not see any curious cats looking back.
John is also Mary’s cousin. John worries that Mary’s house is falling apart all around her. “It’s beyond gut-wrenching.” John realized what her living conditions were three years ago, and made an offer to move her out of it so repairs could be made (if at all possible.) Mary backed out at the very last signature, unwilling to leave her home at all.
Bethany is the original Code Enforcement Agent that discovered the living conditions after receiving numerous calls from neighbors about the overpowering smell. She involved Social Services, the ASPCA and the Health Department; they all made it a few steps into the house before everyone refused to go any further. The camera pans to a pod of cats hiding in an alcove they’ve made in a mound of garbage. The refrigerator is rusted on the side from all of the animal spray.
Bethany has said that action has to be taken immediately or all of the animals will be forcibly removed, and the home will be condemned. Bethany is completely sympathetic to Mary, make no mistake. “I’ve been in dozens of homes that are bad. I’ve just never seen anything like this.” Her voice breaks slightly before continuing. “I went back to my office in tears. You can’t meet Mary without having anything but compassion and pity for her.”
Mary tells the camera that she knows her parents would be ashamed of her and how she’s now living. She’s ashamed of herself. The problem is, she doesn’t have the skills to help herself out of this situation. She and her parents (and grandparents) did everything together. Her mother did everything for her, not allowing her to learn how to care for herself for the inevitable time when she would be living on her own. Which led to the situation in which she now finds herself.
Dr. Liz Moore arrives in biohazard gear. It’s important to understand that filth of this level is a health hazard. The ammonia alone is dangerous. Dr. Moore smiles sweetly at Mary and her cats and enters the house. She comments on how the wood floors are actually spongy. They quickly move into the home where they balance on several feet of refuse; the floor is no longer visible. The doctor asks where she keeps her food, and Mary points to the top of the biggest mound. She tosses her bags of chips and crackers up there, where they’re kind of safe. Dr. Moore points out that the cats are going to the bathroom right next to it, but Mary isn’t bothered. She’s lived this way long enough, and she’s still here, right?
Dr. Moore addresses the cat situation: there are fourteen of them, and they mean everything to Mary. The doctor and Mary move on to her bedroom. She shares a mattress with the cats; it’s soaked in urine, both hers and the cats. She indicates that she has a bladder control problem and cannot afford mattress pads or adult diapers. If I may, this is yet another example of how poorly we are caring for those most in need in the United States. And any leadership that fights against supporting them should be ashamed of themselves.
Thanks, sometimes it’s just too much for me.
Dr. Moore is clearly moved by Mary – this is beyond coping techniques. Mary needs serious help. The last place to check is the bathroom. Dr. Moore cannot get in the doorway. She can’t get within a few steps of it because the smell is making her gag and she is trying so desperately to not; she doesn’t want to offend Mary. There are bags of Mary’s waste in there; she doesn’t know what else to do with it, you see. Mary is ashamed, but you get the impression that she’s understanding that the doctor is there to help her out of this horrible mess she’s in.
Dr. Moore says to the camera at one point that Mary should not be living on her own without assistance, full stop.
The show cuts back to the ambulance from the beginning. Bethany is there; knowing the layout of the home, she quickly shows the paramedics where the bedroom window is. She knows no one will be able to get through the house with medical equipment. A team goes through the window, a backboard is shoved through, Mary gets loaded out, carefully shimmied through the open window and into the back of the ambulance. She’s clearly disoriented and having difficulty breathing.
The camera catches several of the cats at the open window, watching the action. (And no doubt breathing fresh air.)
The doctors at the hospital confirm that the environment of the house led to her health crisis. After two days of being hospitalized, Mary finally accepts that she needs help. She comes home to Matt Paxton and his team, where he tells her that they want to save the cats and Mary.
“You’re trying to change me,” she says.
Matt, laughing, replies, “I don’t think that’s possible.”
Mary’s not going to completely give up. She says sullenly, “Well, you’re sure trying.”
The animal experts are there and ready to remove the animals safely. They quickly round up several of the fourteen and have them in their own carriers to be examined. Dr. Norris notes that most of them have sores in their mouths, making it very difficult for them to eat. Many are so congested that it sounds like they’re purring, when it’s really just their lungs rattling. They explain this to Mary, who is heartbroken.
Animal hoarders like Mary (she’s not the worst we’ve seen, not by far) really believe they are caring for their animals. They love them. That alone makes it better for the animal to be with them, and not on their own. The veterinarians really want her to understand that she is responsible for their health. That the choices she has made has led to them being ill. Mary is devastated. She takes a moment to tell each and every cat words of love and encouragement as they’re all surrendered to a no-kill shelter. It’s very moving, and you almost wish someone would tell Mary those words of love and encouragement.
Two of the cats prove impossible to find. They’ve tunneled through the hoard and have made it into the walls. Matt is brought in where he removes a section of the hoard and a door to see what is happening structurally. He immediately tells the crew they cannot come where he is. One entire wing of the house is supported by a single 4 x 4 post, wedged in with a few boards on top, indicating how much the house has fallen from the weight of the hoard. It isn’t even nailed in place. Anything bumps that post and the whole section of house goes tumbling.
Matt says, “Single-handedly the most unsafe home I’ve ever been in.” Please keep in mind that Matt was on the episode with the home that burned down. And this is the most unsafe home ever. That should tell you just how unhealthy the air is and how rotten the foundation has become.
They set traps and hope for the best, that the cats will come out on their own. No one is allowed to go into that part of the house. Meanwhile, Bonnie and John support Mary as she gives up on her pets. They wrap her up in their arms and offer words of praise for doing the right thing.
Fortunately when the team comes back the next day, one cat is in the humane trap and the other is easily caught by hand. Now Matt can go in and pull out specific bits of memorabilia. Mary is going to need something to tie her to her parents. He finds multiple boxes of pictures and slides, and a jewelry box. Truthfully, it’s the only thing salvageable in the entire home. She sighs with relief at the sight of it.
A Code Enforcement officer arrives, and Matt takes him into the house (while they both wear biohazard gear.) The officer can barely make it into the home without being overpowered by the stench. He is completely shocked once he sees how she slept on a dirty mattress with newspaper. No one is thinking ill of Mary, they’re all just so sad for her. She’s just so terribly pitiful, I don’t know how you could feel anything but compassion for her.
Regardless of everyone’s concern, it’s clear the house needs to be condemned. She’ll need to live elsewhere. Matt thinks she knew this would be the outcome and wants to know what kept her going.
“Sheer bullheadedness,” she answers.
Matt laughs; it’s an honest answer, all right. Dr. Moore soothes her and says, “There is more to your life than belongings and a house.” She is on the road to understanding that, is the impression given. Cousin John takes her in his arms, kisses her forehead, and hugs her for all she’s worth. Which is a lot.
The family is incredibly supportive of her and very involved with this new stage of her life. She is living in a low-income apartment while John helps her negotiate the sale of her property. The building will be demolished.
Annie, mother to six children – five of whom are adults by this point, cares for her disabled husband. There’s a resignation about Annie in everything she does. She is a woman who submits to the job before her. Well, unless that job is cleaning her home. Books and stacks of clothing are everywhere. There is dust on most of the surfaces, and the kitchen is a fright. Dirty dishes and opened food containers and spoiled things are everywhere.
Sarah is her daughter. She’s worried about her father – who has Parkinson’s and diabetes – falling. The hoard could fall on him, or medics couldn’t get to him in time, perhaps. Both are plausible scenarios. Added to this fear is her concern for her youngest brother, Freddie. Freddie is fifteen and looks like he’s just checked out. His eyes are wide and skittish, his hair hangs in greasy tendrils, and he looks lost. The camera cuts to various things he’s written on portions of the hoard: “LOOK MOM” and “I AM MAD.”
More of the hoard falls over the notes, hiding them from view. Freddie sleeps a lot when he’s home, tucked onto his mattress on the floor, laundry piled up around him.
Sarah has threatened to call both Adult and Child Protective Services if this problem isn’t addressed. Once, Sarah bagged up one hundred garbage bags of trash, literally one hundred bags. She carried them each to the curb to be carted off the next day. Her mother went through them all, saving every plastic fork and spoon, each empty yogurt cup and milk jug. They could be of use, somehow.
Annie just couldn’t keep up with things when the babies kept coming. There was always someone who needed her to care for them. Not to mention her job. Annie, you see, is a professional house cleaner. Take a moment for that irony to sink in. They cut to her cleaning other homes, and they’re immaculate. Annie’s home, however, is “hopeless,” so why bother?
Even worse than the piles of junk is the infestation of German cockroaches. This is one of the worst things to have in your home, because it’s nearly impossible to get rid of them once you have them. It’s so bad that their TV shorted out. Because it was filled with the roaches.
The men in the family have allergies and asthma, and the roach droppings are a contributing factor to their poor health. Something must be done. Annie, crying, says that she’s tried to do her best, “but it doesn’t seem like it does any good.”
Mark Pfeffer arrives with a smile and determination. He notes immediately that she doesn’t see the effect her “care” is now having on her family. Mark is worried about Freddie, as Freddie now doesn’t know any better – that people shouldn’t be living like this. He explains to Annie that she is responsible for Freddie and for all of this. She’s a very proud person who doesn’t like to let her chin drop, but she knows to be ashamed of this mess. She just lacks the ability to take action.
Dorothy Breininger arrives with a Got Junk team. Annie has a positive outlook on the morning of the clean up, and is ready to get started, her hair tied back with a kerchief. The crew starts moving large pieces of furniture and the skittering begins. Scads of roaches race out of the dark and up the wall. Dorothy comments on how the Got Junk guys have really seen it all, but even this is giving them the heebie-jeebies.
Dorothy asks Annie if she indeed said that a busted sofa could be garbage. “Yes. Well. It’s garbage. Eventually.” Oh, dear. Mark is with Freddie, trying to get him to make some choices about toys he’s kept for years. There is a lot of “maybe” being tossed about, several, “well, I don’t knows,” and Mark patiently sits, trying to guide him to a choice. Annie is brought in and it’s explained that her son is mirroring her behavior. The hope is that she’ll make the connection between her indecision and her living situation. Mark says, “Indecision has become a lifestyle in this family.”
Outside, Mark talks privately to her, explaining how they’re enabling each other.
“I don’t want him to be mad at me,” she says, worrying her hands.
“You’re his mother. You’re not his friend.”
Annie says, “I want to be the mother that he likes.”
“Unfortunately, that may not be the mother that he needs.” Mark says this kindly, but firmly. A dim light begins to shine in her mind. This is what this show does so well: yes, it’s about hoarders, but the steps that lead to that condition could result in multiple diagnoses. How many parents eventually cripple their children by the need to be liked by the child instead of making sure their child has the tools needed to be an adult on their own?
As the sorting continues, another of the adult children comes to help, Davey. In the background, Annie has watched a team sorting through a huge pile on a tarp, giving them the okay to throw it all away after checking it over. Unbeknownst to Dorothy, a crew person has dumped one last drawer into the pile that wasn’t first sorted by Annie.
And that was the drawer with her wedding bands.
Everything comes to a halt as Annie climbs into the dumpster, searching frantically. Dorothy puts her crew back on the job. Davey is devastated to see his mother climbing through a dumpster of garbage. Mark comments that Annie’s only voice has been her hoard, and now it’s being taken away (without her say – in her way of thinking) and it’s like she’s being silenced.
The crew searches for hours, getting covered with bugs and dirt and sweat. One woman finds it, if you can believe it, and they all give a cheer and a few ladies cry. I don’t blame them. Annie is elated, the trust is back, and the work continues at an astounding clip. Annie is all decisions, and they’re positive ones. Sarah tells her how proud she is of her mother and I’ll be damned, there are gorgeous wooden floors in the living room. You never would have known.
Freddie is smiling from ear to ear, happy that he has a bedroom that is tidy and sorted and clean. “I don’t think there will be [junk] in the future.” Let’s hope, kid; you deserve it.
The house is actually amazing. Sure, in some places, like the kitchen, the flooring will need repairs, but some paint and elbow grease and new appliances and they’re looking at a nice home. Well, barring the infestation. But regardless, Annie is pleased. It’s easier for her to maintain than it is to initiate at this point.
The show has found Annie a therapist. They’re just waiting for her to make an appointment.
The house has been completely cleaned…but the infestation remains, unfortunately.