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Inside the world of animal hoarding: Investigator finds woman standing in inch of feces

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GOOCHLAND COUNTY, Va. -- When you think of hoarding, images of a home filled with boxes, expired food, stacks of old newspapers, floors covered with trash likely come to mind. But those are not the only things that people collect obsessively -- some of the worst hoarding cases involve animals.

From the farm, to the suburbs, to the city, it can happen anywhere, with all types of pets and livestock.

In fact, the Virginia Attorney General's Office has a whole unit devoted to animal law-related cases. But it can be difficult for investigators, because the people committing these crimes often do not realize they have done anything wrong.

Neighbor: She Wanted to Help Animals

Doris Johnson said the more than 100 animals that used to live next door to her Goochland home devoured cucumbers, kale, and hay repeatedly.

"All this was our garden spot that the animals would come in and destroy," Johnson said.

Johnson said her neighbor's animals would eat anything and everything in sight.

"They were hungry," Johnson said.

Reporter Melissa Hipolit and Doris Johnson

Reporter Melissa Hipolit and Doris Johnson

Johnson's former neighbor, Annette Thompson, ran a pet rescue organization.

Johnson said Thompson's intentions were good.

"She was wanting to do a good thing…she was wanting to help animals," Johnson said.

But, somewhere along the line, things got out of hand.

"It was too many animals for her to take care of," Johnson said.

Thompson was found guilty of inadequate animal care in 2011, and charged with animal cruelty in 2013.

Investigators said they found animals severely underfed. Some were even unable to stand.

"Right over there is where that cow we watched slow death," Johnson said.

The cruelty charges were later set aside, but she was ordered to part with most of her animals.

Annette Thompson spoke to CBS 6 after a fire at her home in 2013.

Annette Thompson spoke to CBS 6 after a fire at her home in 2013.

CBS 6 talked to Thompson in 2013 after a fire at her home.

"They need help, and I kinda feel like when I was a police officer I help people, now that I’m not a police officer I help animals," Thompson said in 2013.

The Troubling Trend 

"They start off really wanting to do good for the animals and help the animals but they can’t seem to stop at a limit," Michelle Welch, who heads up the animal law unit for Attorney General Mark Herring, said.

She said most hoarders are middle-aged women who have gone through some type of tragedy.

"In one case I had a lady standing in at least an inch of feces," Welch said.

Welch showed us pictures from some of the worst cases, including photos that showed animals with health problems, stacked in crates, and living in filth.

"They’re delusional. They’re looking at it but they’re not seeing it," Welch aid.

Take Peanut, who was rescued from a woman hoarding cats in Appomattox County last year.

"Peanut was in fairly horrific condition, it looked like the entire one side of his face was trying to slough off," Angela Ivey, the director of veterinary medicine at the Richmond SPCA, said.

A small polyp in his ear canal went untreated and turned into cancer.

A healthy Peanut

A healthy Peanut

Thanks to the efforts of law enforcement and the Richmond SPCA, Peanut is now healthy and ready for adoption.

How You Can Help 

Welch said anyone who suspects animal hoarding needs to intervene immediately and can contact her office for advice.

"What we want to do is get very proactive with hoarding because it really is a mental illness and those people need help," Welch said.

Ronna Saunders, a licensed clinical social worker, is one of the people who tries to assist animal hoarders in Central Virginia.

"Logic doesn’t cut it with these disorders at all...I would say two to five-percent of the whole population would meet the criteria…for animal hoarding," Saunders said.

She provides therapy to people who suffer from a variety of obsessive compulsive disorders.

"They truly love these animals," Saunders said.

Saunders said animal hoarding is extremely difficult to overcome because the hoarder just does not think they have a problem.

"As someone I my profession I have to say there is always hope, but it’s extremely difficult," Saunders said when asked if it is possible to overcome animal hoarding.

The Richmond SPCA said over the last fiscal year, 51 pets came into their care from hoarding cases.

The Attorney General's office sees this as a big enough issue that they're hosting a conference about it in Northern Virginia in June.

Annette Thompson with one of her first rescue dogs.

Annette Thompson with one of her first rescue dogs.