Hoarding Babies, Hoarding Animals

Lolita Buckner Inniss (Cleveland-Marshall, Ain’t I a Feminist Legal Scholar, Too?, Visiting Prof at Pace Law School) and I have posted to SSRN our essay, Multiple Anxieties: Breaching Race, Class and Gender Norms With Assisted Reproduction.  The essay is about is about misplaced attention on women’s bodies.  Focusing on Nadya Suleman, the California woman who gave birth to octuplets in January, we explore socio-legal anxieties about gender, race, class and geography.  To theorize about the increasing availability of reproductive technology is to uncover a deep ambivalence about “choice” as it applies to women and their bodies.

The public reacted strongly and negatively to the Suleman’s story.  How could anyone have octuplets?  And how could anyone have octuplets when they already have six other children?  “She must be crazy,” the internet commentators suggested.

There is a way in which Suleman is being read as kind of “collector” or “hoarder” of children, the way some people hoard animals.  Animal hoarding is characterized (here) by The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium by the presence of these criteria:

  • More than the typical number of companion animals
  • Inability to provide even minimal standards of nutrition, sanitation, shelter, and veterinary care, with this neglect often resulting in starvation, illness, and death
  • Denial of the inability to provide this minimum care and the impact of that failure on the animals, the household, and human occupants of the dwelling

As I read the negative criticism of Suleman, the outcry comes not only from the fact she has “more than the typical number” of children, but also that she seems to lack an independent (i.e., non-government) source of financial support for the children’s “nutrition, sanitation, shelter” and medical care.  In interviews, Suleman presents as a calm and “beatific” presence, as if she is in some kind of denial about her ability to care for the children.

In our essay (full version here) Professor Inniss and I attempt to unpack the “multiple anxieties” that Suleman’s story has exposed.  Some of those anxieties are about race and class.  If a wealthy person has “more than the typical number” of children (or companion animals, for that matter) how likely are they to be read as a (crazy) hoarder?  Not very likely, is my guess.  With both children and companion animals, the wealthy can outsource the work to paid caretakers.  The wealthy are more likely to live in larger residences.  This in turn reducing the immediate negative impact of the presence of many children (or animals) on other occupants of the dwelling.  Plus the wealthy have permission to be “eccentric.” Middle-class and poor people who exhibit the same behaviors are “crazy.”

I do not wish to suggest that having 14 children or companion animals is normatively good or even wise.  But I do think we should be explicit about the biases that we bring to a determination of some idealized, “typical” (read: acceptable) number of children or animals.

-Bridget Crawford

5 Responses

  1. […] animalblawg added an interesting post today on Hoarding Babies, Hoarding Animals « Animal BlawgHere’s a small readingThere is a way in which Suleman is being read as kind of “collector” or “hoarder” of children, the way some people hoard animals. Animal hoarding is characterized (here) by The Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium by the presence of … […]

  2. “But I do think we should be explicit about the biases that we bring to a determination of some idealized, ‘typical’ (read: acceptable) number of children or animals.”

    I agree with Professor Crawford that the “biases” should be exposed for debate and discussion.

    Procreation is a fundamental right and can not be restricted by government. Is it a bias to raise the issue of who pays for, by way of example, the octuplets or is that a rational question (incidentally, “octuplets” doesn’t even come up on SpellCheck-it stops at sextuplets)?

    That said, where do negative feelings about these mega-births and very large families come from? Demographically, families have gotten smaller during the second half of the last century. Urban families do not need the hands of many children to sustain themselves and, for that matter, neither do rural or farm families. It seems that there is now a widely accepted social ideal of two children. Three is okay and more than that is unusual except if the family is part of a cohort at the margins of mainstream society.

    Rather close to Professor Crawford and my law school is a very large community of Hasidic Jews where families of eight to twelve or more children are common. Actually, their interpretation of scripture and acceptance of dogma dictates the largest families possible. Outside their tightly exclusionary communities there is general bias against such large families. Why? Anti-Semitism won’t do because many of those most expressive of their distaste for very large Hasidic families are Jews. It seems that the “bias” is based on the pregnant (no pun intended) reality that a huge number of these large families receive public funds as a matter of right. So the objection is economic rather than religion or gender based.

    Remember Mia Farrow, once wed to Woody Allen? She came in for a fair share of negative publicity because of the number of children she adopted. In her case there could not have been a religious bias nor a concern about economics – Ms. Farrow was well able to support her large brood, at least materially. I suggest that an evolving consensus about family size rather than a discernible bias accounted for most of the largely less than positive comments about her (and, of course, being a celebrity brought its share of publicity).

    Now as to animal hoarding, or to be more specific, cat hoarding which is not an eccentricity. Unlike large families that reflect history, tradition, necessity and often religion, cat hoarding is pure and simple a mental illness. That is well documented as is the sad fact that the hoarded felines invariably suffer from disease, malnutrition,confinement, unsanitary conditions and no future. And cat hoarding, by the nature of the malady, defies the possibility that “outsourcing,” even if economically feasible, can happen. The cat hoarder is on a terrible slippery slope, gripped by an uncontrolled illness while the animals suffer greatly. So perhaps there is no parallel between large families and pathological cat hoarding. Just a thought.

  3. Purdue University Press has released a new book, Inside Animal Hoarding, which profiles one of the largest and most intriguing cases of animal hoarding in recent history. Celeste Killeen’s investigation pries open the door to Barbara Erickson’s hidden and closely guarded life, offering an in-depth view of animal hoarding. Dr. Arnold Arluke’s discussion follows the Erickson story with current research on animal hoarding and how it ties into the Erickson case. This integration of investigative journalism and scholarship offers a fresh approach with appeal to a broad audience of readers, those new to learning about the phenomenon, and those with first-hand experience in the animal welfare field.

  4. Hoarding of animals: an under-recognized public health problem in a difficult-to study
    population.

    Public Health Rep. 1999 Jan-Feb;114(1):81-7.
    Patronek GJ.

    OBJECTIVE: The objective of this study was to better characterize the problem of hoarding, or
    pathological collecting, of animals. METHODS: The author summarized data from a convenience
    sample of 54 case reports from 10 animal control agencies and humane societies across the
    country. RESULTS: The majority (76%) of hoarders were female, and 46% were 60 years of age
    or older. About half of the hoarders lived in single-person households. The animals most
    frequently involved were cats, dogs, farm animals, and birds. The median number of animals per
    case was 39, but there were four cases of more than 100 animals in a household. In 80% of
    cases animals were reportedly found dead or in poor condition. Prevalence estimates
    extrapolated from these data range from 700 to 2000 U.S. cases annually. CONCLUSIONS:
    Public health authorities should recognize that animal hoarding may be a sentinel for mental
    health problems or dementia, which merit serious assessment and prompt intervention. Improved
    cooperation between humane societies and public health authorities could facilitate the resolution
    of animal hoarding cases.

  5. >If a wealthy person has “more than the typical number” of children (or companion animals, for that matter) how likely are they to be read as a (crazy) hoarder? Not very likely, is my guess. With both children and companion animals, the wealthy can outsource the work to paid caretakers. The wealthy are more likely to live in larger residences. This in turn reducing the immediate negative impact of the presence of many children (or animals) on other occupants of the dwelling. Plus the wealthy have permission to be “eccentric.” Middle-class and poor people who exhibit the same behaviors are “crazy.”

    That’s partly because the EFFECTS of their hoarding, like overcrowding, neglect and unsanitary conditions, are reduced or eliminated by having larger homes and employing paid caretakers. Actually, hoarding by definition means having more than you can take care of…so if a person is wealthy enough to adequately take care of 50 cats, it’s not hoarding. That’s not bias, that’s just the simple consequence of more money being able to pay for more space, more food, more care.

    However, when talking about human babies in particular there is also the issue of emotional care. Adults have limited time, attention and patience, especially in the modern economy that requires both parents to work. Even when a mother stays home, any more than 4 kids is psychologically unhealthy. My mother likes the brag about how she raised five kids but the truth is that her 4 oldest exhausted her so much that she gave up trying to raise the youngest who is a middle-aged high school dropout living at home who has never had a job, another adult offspring is still at home and is still dealing with the emotional scars of physical abuse, one had been taken away from my parents in her teenage years because my family was found to be dysfunctional, both her and my brother have had abusive relationships, and then there’s me. I’m complaining about my parents on a blog, so I guess I’m screwed up as well.

    Like dog and cat hoarders my mother sees nothing wrong with the way we were raised, in spite of what social services has told her. So yeah, I think it is possible for people to hoard babies as well as animals. I feel sorry for Octo-mom’s kids.

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