Cruelty, like love, takes many forms.

Perhaps the most sinister form of cruelty comes in the guise of love. One need not look far within the human family to find this kind of brokenness. But such brokenness extends to the animal kingdom, too.

Consider the animal hoarders.

According to experts, animal hoarders:

  • keep more animals than they have ability or resources with which to provide proper care and attention
  • deny this inability as well as the severity of the situation
  • obsessively maintain or increase the number of animals despite deteriorating conditions that range from cramped and unsanitary living spaces to neglect, starvation, and even death.

Seemingly inexplicably, animal hoarders usually express love for their animals and exhibit severe anxiety at the prospect of the animals being removed.

But this confuses love and attachment. Even highly emotional attachment is not the same as love, as any abused child or spouse might tell us, and as hoarded animals show us, even without the ability to speak.

A recent case is an extreme, yet somewhat typical, example. In June, the Humane Society of the United States seized 700 cats from a purported feline "sanctuary" in Florida, run by a husband and wife who, some believe, started out with good intentions that went horribly awry.

Ashley Mauceri, deputy manager of Animal Cruelty Investigations for the HSUS, told me in a phone interview that the vilest aspect of this case was a room in the couple's home that the couple called the "infirmary." It contained one of the most troubling scenes of animal neglect Mauceri has seen in countless investigations across the nation. Back on the site last weekend to help facilitate 258 adoptions of the 550 cats that were rescued from the site, Mauceri referred to it as the "room of death."

Animal hoarding is a significant problem in terms of sheer numbers: approximately 250,000 animals are reported hoarded each year. Mauceri says television shows on the topic, like those on Animal Planet, are raising awareness and thus helping animals, particularly since hoarders aren't always easily identifiable to outsiders. They seem not to be linked to any particular demographic, are just as likely to be male as female, rich as poor, young as old. The behavior is clearly a manifestation of underlying problems, and it is not within the scope of my expertise or intent to delve deeply into the various, serious psychological issues that are likely the root of many of these cases. (According to this report, the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, the Bible of modern psychiatrists, will be the first to include hoarding as a disorder.)

Article continues below

Nevertheless, it's fair to observe that the line between health and sickness can be mighty fine. So, too, other lines, like those that divide an "infirmary" from a "room of death," storing from hoarding, dominion from domination, and stewardship from control.

It is perhaps in the precision of definitions where we can start to discern where good crosses over into evil.

The word hoard comes from the Old English term which means "treasure, valuable stock or store." In current use, hoard is defined as "a hidden fund or supply stored for future use." Both of these definitions reveal something helpful in trying to understand where the line from good crosses to ill. Hidden (as opposed to private) stores of things suggest an element of shame or illicitness; not surprisingly, one trait nearly all animal hoarders share, according to Mauceri, is the denial of access by other people into their homes and lives. Shutting out people, in turn, creates in the hoarder a greater dependency on animals for companionship and validation.

Because most animal hoarders claim to love their animals, properly defining love is helpful, too. Love should not be mistaken for attachment. We all have attachments apart from love, and one Christian counselor says the first step to understanding and helping the hoarder is to recognize it in ourselves. At the root of hoarding might be fear, greed, covetousness, or pride—or a combination of these. These sins are not unique to the hoarder but have merely grown to unmanageable magnitude. And as the Bible states, where our treasure is, there our hearts will be, too. To place one's heart in the hidden treasures of material goods, illicit relationships, or animal companionship is to disorder our affections and, as a result, our lives.

In On Christian Doctrine, St. Augustine defines justice as loving things in proper measure. In Book One of that work, Augustine writes,

Now he is a man of just and holy life who forms an unprejudiced estimate of things, and keeps his affections also under strict control, so that he neither loves what he ought not to love, nor fails to love what he ought to love, nor loves that more which ought to be loved less, nor loves that equally which ought to be loved either less or more, nor loves that less or more which ought to be loved equally.

The disordered life that arises from hoarding of any kind, beyond whatever psychological or spiritual issues might be factors, arises from the kind of disordered loves that Augustine describes.

Surely, we should not love animals more than people. But nor should we love animals less than we allow fear, greed, covetousness, or pride to rule our lives. The challenge to love all things as much as they ought to be loved is a challenge for all of us, not just the animal hoarders. We ought to love in proper measure the animals God has placed under our care, and we ought to love our neighbors by helping them to do the same.