GREENACRES, Fla. — No one passing by the townhome on 27th Lane would have suspected the horrible conditions inside that led authorities to rescue nearly 50 cats living there.
The manicured lawn and a back yard opening onto a lake belied the stacks of garbage bags and stench of urine inside the Sherwood Lakes home. Scores of cats scaled the trash heaps in what investigators are calling the biggest recent case of animal hoarding in Palm Beach County.
The neglect came to light when the townhome owner suffered a medical problem March 6 and was hospitalized. Worried about her cats, she asked authorities to look after them.
When county Animal Care and Control crews arrived, they had to call other county departments for help with what they found. They spent two weeks removing cats from the home. The final tally: two dead and 45 alive.
"It is probably the worst hoarding case that we've seen in Palm Beach County," Animal Care and Control Capt. David Walesky said. He described the home's condition as "very, very deplorable."
Animal Care and Control is receiving more calls about hoarding as more people learn about the problem.
Of the many calls reporting possible animal cruelty, investigators find that about one a day involves a hoarder. Extreme situations such as the one in Greenacres are found every few months.
Another extreme hoarding case was that of Chi Lu Linville of Loxahatchee. In 2002, crews removed hundreds of goats from her home. In 2003, they removed almost 200 pigs, cats, sheep and cows.
Linville became so enraged that she enlisted a hit man - actually an undercover Palm Beach County sheriff's deputy posing as as a hit man - to shoot Tammie Crawford, an Animal Care and Control officer, and dump her body into a canal. Linville was convicted in 2005 of solicitation to commit first-degree murder.
Also fresh in Walesky's mind were the 52 animals found in a western Boynton Beach home in 2000. In that same house was a roomful of dead animals the homeowner just couldn't let go of.
Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of forensic sciences and anti-cruelty projects at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York, said hoarding is a mental disorder with a high recidivism rate.
About 75 percent of animal-hoarding cases he has seen involved dogs or cats, but people also hoard exotics such as tarantulas, he said.
"Hoarding in general is part of an anxiety disorder. You feel that things are out of control and you want to try to maintain control," Lockwood said. "People for a variety of reasons –– life experiences, biological disposition –– are incapable of forming lasting relationships with people, so they substitute this."
Two weeks ago, Animal Care and Control officials went to a home on Plumosa Drive in suburban West Palm Beach when they were notified by a pet food bank that its owner, who rescued dogs off the street, might be in over her head.
Like many hoarders, the home's owner thought she was helping the nine dogs that were removed from the home.
And that's often how hoarding begins, Walesky said.
"She had little tunnels going through her house," he said. "She had multiple lawn mowers in her house and had dogs tied to the lawn mowers."
The dogs were not sick, but the living conditions were bad enough to classify the case as hoarding. The woman denied having a problem and refused to cooperate with authorities, Walesky said.
Authorities can't take action if a person simply has a lot of animals, as long as they are well cared for and no city or county codes have been violated.
But if the owner is deemed a hoarder, is harming the animals or lives in bad conditions, authorities have options.
Code enforcement officers can order them to clean up a filthy house that is not safe to occupy and fine them if they don't comply.
The county health department can determine that the house is unsafe for occupation. And if the animals are uncared for or harmed, the hoarder can be charged with animal cruelty.
Police also can order a mental health evaluation for the hoarder.
If the person is willing to receive help, mental health therapy and adult protective services are available.
But more often than not, hoarders do not comply with authorities and don't think they are doing anything wrong. Then law enforcement and other agencies get involved.
And in some cases, if the hoarder is accused of violating an ordinance, he or she will relocate and continue hoarding rather than fix the problem, Lockwood said.
Family or neighbors can call "211" to request help for many problems, including hoarding. The center receives two to three calls a month from family members, neighbors or the hoarders themselves seeking help, and the number has been increasing, said Patrice Schroeder, a community relations public information officer at 211 Palm Beach/Treasure Coast.
Most hoarders are senior citizens, she said.
Schroeder said the center "gets the ball rolling" by assessing whether the person is competent and whether the
health department or code enforcement need to be involved, and in general to "look at the situation."
But sometimes there's not much agencies can do if no law is broken and no ordinance violated.
"If there's no health violation," Schroeder said, "there's really nothing you can do because people can choose how they want to live."