14 News Investigates: House of Hoarders - Tri-State News, Weather & Sports

14 News Investigates: House of Hoarders

Reporter: Stefanie Silvey
New Web Producer: Mike Mardis

How many pets are too many? Five? Ten? How about 100? That's about how many are currently living at the home of Dolores Zimmerman of Gibson County.  

People like Zimmerman are known as hoarders. These are people who collect things at an enormous rate, and cannot stop. She collects pets. 

And to say that she has a lot of pets is an understatement. She has 56 cats and 32 dogs living in her house.

But it's the house that appears normal on the outside that psychiatrists say can often times be the most horrendous house of hoarders. 

In many cases visiting the house of a hoarder is overbearing.

"We've been in homes where there are several inches of feces," said Kendall Paul of the Vanderburgh Humane Society.

"The contractor went inside the house and in probably about three and a half minutes, came out and vomited on the lawn." said Dwayne.

The cases are extreme but, unfortunately, not uncommon. 

Dr. Louis Cady, a psychiatrist, tried to explain why hoarders acts as they do.

"This is the gearshift of the brain. If it is hyperactive, if it is too metabolically active, too turned on, the person can't shift and the manifestation of that would be someone who has to collect,"  said Cady as he pointed to a model of a brain.

Cady said there are varying degrees of hoarding. Some hoarders are more high functioning than others.

Zimmerman said that she has to deal with criticism from all over.

"They say I'm crazy," said Zimmerman, "I don't care what they say about me. Some of them call me flea bag, but I don't care. Mine don't have fleas."

Kenneth Mansell lives on Zimmerman's property free of charge. In exchange, he helps with the care of the animals.

"I've got 19 dogs, a turkey, some chickens and some ducks," said Mansell, "I love animals and they seem to appreciate the care I give them."

Zimmerman lives in poverty, but she said she does it all for the animals. Her pets are her family, and with family comes spats from time to time.

"Shut up, shut up, now get going, you see what you did, you see what you did? out! out!" Zimmerman shouts as one of the dogs has an accident in the house. 

Each animal has a name and a story.

"This is Little Girl who's got asthma, that is Big Pooper there," she said with a laugh. 

The noise and the smell can be overwhelming to someone not accustomed.

"Can you smell it? I don't smell them," Zimmerman said. 

The cost can be overwhelming as well. All of the animals are well fed, receive regular veterinary care, and each one has been fixed.

"I'm always broke, put it this way," Zimmerman said.

At one point, Zimmerman said she had more than 200 animals living in her house, but because of her failing health she's not taking in any more animals. She said it is not fair to them. 

"No, no, no," Zimmerman said after asked if she considers herself a hoarder, "because the hoarder, they don't take care of them. I am a lover to them."

Zimmerman's opinion differs from Dr. Cady's, however. 

"I think that many pets, yes. This is the best type. It is somebody that clearly loves her animals, that is taking care of them, and some people just have an overabundance of love in their heart for animals," said Cady. 

Kendall Paul said stepping in and removing animals in a situation like this can be devastating to both the hoarder and the rescuing agency.

"For a non profit organization, it can drain your budget," she said, "it can really deplete what you have, because you are not set up to take on all of those."

Paul said as long as the animals are okay and the person is too, it is better to work with the hoarder when possible.

"Why remove them? Keep them there, because they are going to do it again. They are going to keep taking in animals if you take them all away. Keep monitoring the health of the animals, and make sure the situation doesn't deteriorate," Paul said.

Sometimes an agency must step in. Rita Stallings with the Spencer County Health Department said she will never forget a case she encountered a few years ago.

"What we found was five dead cats and a dead dog that had starved to death inside the home among their own feces," Stallings said.

Stallings said by looking at the outside of this home, you could never imagine the horror taking place inside. A wealthy Spencer County woman collected animals and then abandoned them to start over again in a new house.

"This is a little dog on the steps. You can see his little paws, where he just laid there waiting for his owner to come back and feed it which never happened, and it starved to death waiting," she said. Sitting beside the skeletal remains of the animals were cans and cans of unopened dog and cat food.

"Anytime you've got dead cats in drawers and dead dogs with their heads between their legs, it is pathological. If someone is dying. That is sick!" said Dr. Cady.  

Due to the woman's mental illness, Spencer County authorities decided to accept a donation to the Humane Society instead of pursuing criminal charges against her. The same woman had been previously banned in Posey County for similar actions. She is now deceased. 

Dolores Zimmerman, whose health is, self-admittedly, deteriorating, said she has two people ready to step in and take care of the animals, should she need them.

Dr. Cady says it is great to see that Zimmerman is maintaining what she has, instead of continually collecting more.

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