Police rescued 49 dogs and 5 cats from a home in North Bergen, New Jersey, last week, but that wasn’t the worst of it. In the house, they also found another dog and 11 cats — all 12 of them dead.

In late December, authorities descended on the home of a woman living in Charleston, South Carolina, and rescued over 100 animals, rabbits, cats and dog. All of them lived in deplorable conditions, a risk not only to the animals but to the surrounding community.

In one of the most extreme cases, authorities in Los Angeles reported rescuing over 600 animals from one home. Some of the animals were dead, and others were so ill they had to be euthanized.

These are cases of animal hoarding, and it’s a bigger problem than most of us realize.

The American Humane Association says there are “collectors” of animals “in almost every community, large or small, rural or urban. They are in a state of denial that prevents them from seeing the filth or understanding their animals are sick, dying or even dead. They need help.” The association estimates that over 250,000 animals are victimized by hoarding every year.

The “little old lady” in the neighborhood with 20 cats isn’t just a stereotype. The Animal Legal Defense Fund says 72 percent of hoarders are women, and cats are their likely victims. Hoarding, they say, is clearly a mental illness. Is it obsessive-compulsive behavior? Is it paranoia and depression? Is it delusional thinking? Check, check and check.

Authorities know that hoarders almost never stop hoarding and that the only way to stop this deadly behavior is to separate them from animals — and to keep them apart.

Others are actively cruel to animals and purposely hurt them on a regular basis. To most of us, the idea is unfathomable; our brains simply don’t work that way. People who hurt animals are more likely to hurt people as well. A definitive 2002 study clearly linked a history of animal abuse to antisocial personality disorder.

Google the most infamous killers in American history and you’ll find people who began by abusing animals. Jeffrey Dahmer, the “Son of Sam,” Ted Bundy — they’re all there. Another link that’s no surprise: If a child has been physically abused, he is far more likely to abuse animals.

It’s such a big problem that the FBI recently began classifying animal cruelty as a class A felony. That puts it on par with rape and murder.

Beginning this year, the FBI will track data on animal cruelty crimes through the National Incident-Based Reporting System, or NIBRS. This is a collection of detailed crime statistics that law enforcement agencies around the country send to the FBI. To get the specific animal-related stats, the FBI is partnering with the National Sheriffs Association and the Animal Welfare Institute, and will make the information available to the public in 2017.

But can you really put animal cruelty on par with rape? The FBI says yes. Crime Statistics Management Unit Chief Amy Blasher says animal cruelty is “an early indicator of violent crime.”

The answer is mixed for people who hoard 100 or 600 animals and whether they should be considered dangerous criminals. Authorities say it could be yes or no. Law enforcement and animal welfare groups tend to distinguish between “active” and “passive” cruelty. “Active” speaks for itself — while hoarders are passive. They don’t actively hurt the animals in their care. Hoarders, according to Canadians for Animal Welfare Reform, “have a compulsive need to obtain and control animals, coupled with a failure to recognize their suffering.”

Make no mistake, though: The FBI doesn’t seem to draw any distinction between mindless violence and so-called “animal sports” such as dogfighting, bear baiting and cock fighting. If you’re involved, you’re complicit — and if you’re caught, you’re going down.

If you know about an incident of animal cruelty, here’s what to do about it:

  • Check it out. The “see something, say something” line doesn’t just apply to terrorism. If someone is hesitant to show you how they care for their 20 cats, call the cops immediately.
  • Fight animal cruelty when you select your own pet. Don’t buy a dog or cat from the big chain stores; those animals are likely the product of breeding mills, and you can’t know what type of conditions in which those animals were raised. Many mills have been prosecuted for raising dogs in conditions that make hoarders look like St. Francis.
  • Visit your local animal shelter or Google animal rescue programs in your neighborhood and meet all the animals. In either situation, your next pet will likely seek you out. Animals are smart that way. Also, you get to see first-hand how the animals are being treated. Adopting a “slightly used” pet creates more room for animals that might be rescued from a hoarder. The animals rescued from the New Jersey case — including nearly two dozen puppies — were taken to various shelters, where they will receive medical care and become available for adoption.

If you believe pets aren’t capable of emotions like gratitude, I dare you to give an animal a forever home.

For 10,000 years dogs have been our most loyal non-human companions and have evolved complex behaviors that complement their human masters. They are our partners and our charges. We owe them. Cats share a similar bond, but have been with us a more modest 4,000 years (which goes a long way toward explaining their never-ending state of exasperation with their “authorities”).

We are honor bound to steward the animals that have tied their fortunes to ours.

Class A Felony? Maybe it’s not strong enough.

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