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Carolyn opened up her heart, wallet and home to unwanted dogs throughout her Missouri community, but what started as a labor of love nearly did her in. She eventually adopted 82 dogs, causing herself health problems, estranging her from her four children — and nearly sending her and her husband Ron to the poorhouse.
Carolyn (who withheld her last name) appeared on TODAY Friday, the same day that the second season of reality TV series “Confessions: Animal Hoarding” was slated to begin on Animal Planet. Carolyn’s is one of 10 cases examined on the hoarding show this season, and while she prefers the term “animal boarder” to “hoarder,” she admitted her love for dogs took over her life.
Dogs by the dozen
Her obsession began 16 years ago, after the last of her children moved out of the house. Carolyn began volunteering at a local animal shelter and found her heart breaking as she watched animals being euthanized.
“Every day I would go in and there would be several dogs I wouldn’t see again — time after time, day after day,” Carolyn told Meredith Vieira. “So I just got to the point when people would bring them to the door [of the shelter], I’d say, ‘Well, do you want this dog adopted?’ They’d say, ‘I don’t care.’ So I would put them in my Jeep and bring them home.”
Carolyn began taking in more and more dogs, to the point where neighbors would drop off their unwanted dogs at her house rather than the shelter. Her feelings for the animals became so intense that she once stole a dog she believed was being abused from a neighbor.
Eventually, Carolyn had eight dogs inside her house, 20 more living in her yard and another 54 on a property outside town.
The bills were astronomical: The family spent $350 a week on dry dog food alone. Husband Ron estimated the family shelled out more than $200,000 in a little over 10 years’ time on the pets.
Money became tight, and Carolyn began asking her children to pitch in financially. But those children were at their wit’s end. Carolyn’s son Tim, appearing alongside his mother on TODAY, told Vieira that “physically, financially, emotionally, it was taking its toll.”
In one of the most emotionally gripping moments on “Confessions,” Carolyn tells her children on camera, “I can’t get from you kids what I get from my animals, it’s that deep.”
Tim told Vieira he reached the point where he no longer talked to his mother. “It was something that I just wasn’t going to support any longer.”
Carolyn’s case may seem strange, but it’s not that unusual: There are some 3,500 cases of animal hoarding each year. Psychologist Karen Cassiday told Vieira many stories begin just as Carolyn’s did.
“What we see with animal hoarders is they’re victims of their fantasy to create a perfect, unconditional love with animals,” said Cassiday, who specializes in hoarding issues.
“Human relationships always have conflict, and many animal hoarders begin hoarding after they lose important relationships. Animals become their sole source of identity and love, and we know from research they are unable to see the whole because of the details.”
Indeed, Carolyn said she lived in denial that her family was heading toward bankruptcy. “We would get behind on our bills every month,” she told Vieira. “But it wasn’t an issue. Feeding the dogs was an issue, and that’s what we did.”
Countless hours of tending to the dogs took a physical toll on Carolyn as well — she’s had five knee replacement surgeries from bending down to fill water and food dishes and to hug her pets.
Last winter her children finally convinced her to go into therapy, and were able to coax Carolyn into giving up all but 11 of her dogs. But on TODAY, Carolyn broke into tears thinking about it. “I miss my dogs, I miss them,” she said.
“It’s hard. I know that there are animals out there being abused day after day; I guess I tried to save all that I could.”
Cassiday told Vieira that Carolyn is on her way to recovery, but is not out of the woods with her obsession to care for unwanted dogs.
“She needs to learn to develop a balanced lifestyle that prioritizes humans equal or above animals, that helps her find ways to own pets that’s limited, and that balances her needs and her family’s needs and the animals’ needs so that no one is overwhelmed.”
Still, Carolyn does not like to think of herself as an animal hoarder. “I think hoarding is a harsh word,” she told Vieira. “It’s just that I love them babies, I love them with everything.”