DOYLESTOWN, Pa. -- He who dies with the most toys wins ... unless trapped under all those toys during a fire when rescue workers can't get to you.
The compulsive hoarding of both animals and material goods has become a "grave problem in Bucks County," complicating fire and medical rescues and leading to some deaths, investigators said Monday.
Emergency personnel, medical professionals and social workers met for a compulsive-hoarding symposium at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown. Hundreds gathered in DelVal's student center for the training session led by Gail Steketee, dean and professor at the Boston University School of Social Work.
The conference began with a question.
"How many of you have dealt with a person with a serious case of hoarding?" Ms. Steketee asked the group.
Nearly every hand in the hall went up.
Bucks County Fire Marshal Nick Rafferty described cases in which homeowners remained trapped in their homes during a blaze. "It took an extended period of time just to find the deceased bodies because everything fell on top of them," he said. He declined to identify the victims.
In November 2010, firefighters responded to a similar case in Tinicum and struggled to get through the house because of hoarding. One woman was later found dead among the rubble.
More recently, investigators said they responded to a house fire in Plumstead only to discover books, paperwork and other items piled up even in the homeowner's shower, said Mark Kramer, assistant fire marshal for the county.
"Neighbors said they knew something was wrong because the woman would always sit outside even in winter," Assistant Marshal Kramer said. "There was no place left in her house for her to sit."
Clinical studies suggest "one pack rat in every 50 people" in the U.S., exceeding the prevalence of some other more commonly understood conditions such as obsessive compulsive disorder, Ms. Steketee said.
Most compulsive hoarders begin to exhibit symptoms between ages 15 and 20, she added. The inability to part with both animals and objects generally grows into a crippling obsession by the time hoarders reach middle age.
"We know people who have filled one house, bought another, started to fill that house, and bought a third," Ms. Steketee said. "So, these are people who have money and can just move from home to home."
Some studied hoarders believed "things are more reliable than people" and that throwing away items means one's whole life is "a waste." Hoarders might also be uncomfortable storing items in cabinets because they would be out of view.
Hoarders also appear to have more pronounced visual skills and an ability to "see tremendous uses for something that others cannot see," Ms. Steketee said.
Studied cases of animal hoarding found subjects who believed animals were more important than people. In some cases, animals and pets were found to be the most stable figures in the subject's early life as their parents quarreled, she said.
Sadly, it is often easier to investigate cases of animal abuse than human abuse as family members begin hoarding, experts said. Animal advocacy groups such as the Bucks County SPCA are often the first to gain access to a home when hoarding is suspected.
More than 100 animals, including chickens and snakes, were removed from a Bedminster home in April.
Last summer, police in Hatboro arrested two women following the discovery of 36 cats in a house where the floors had reportedly buckled under the weight of trash. SPCA workers entered the site in hazardous materials suits and described feces piled atop shelves and dressers and in every corner of the home.
More than 50 cats were removed from the home of a Lower Makefield woman in May 2010. And, nearly four dozen Yorkshire terriers were discovered in 2009 in the basement of a home in Upper Makefield.