Pack Rat Patrol


When you’re “91 years of age,” Ana tells anyone who will listen, you don’t have much left to hold onto.

What she does have--odds and ends and trash and the memories they contain--she keeps piled high throughout her yard and small Pacoima home.

Because her house is filled to the rafters with junk, she sleeps outside amid the refuse and among the feral cats that she feeds stale bread.


Ana is a pack rat, one of an estimated 500 to 600 living in the city of Los Angeles, according to authorities, who say half a dozen of them die each year in house fires.

Already this year, fires have caused the deaths of six pack rats in the city, the latest in May when a fireplace spark ignited the contents of a Canoga Park home, killing owner Marlene Dallugge, 55.

Last week, Ana got her first visit from Dennis Bogard, a warm and matter-of-fact Los Angeles Fire Department inspector whose title is hazardous refuse abatement coordinator.

He spends much of his time befriending pack rats in an effort to get them to clear their properties before forced cleanup or legal action become necessary.

“It doesn’t take a whole lot to see that these people need support,” said Bogard, 52, as he bent down to avoid a row of plastic bags hanging from a tree branch. Like many pack rats, Ana uses this method to store some of her most precious possessions.

“Most of them are sweet folks, and really quite intelligent. I’m just here to make sure they don’t hurt themselves, or hurt others . . . They can be serious hazards.”

Almost all pack rats--also known as hoarders, recyclers and clutterers--live in squalid conditions that violate Los Angeles County health and safety codes, officials say. They can expose themselves and neighbors to airborne respiratory illness and diseases carried by the rodents and insects that often take refuge in pack-rat dwellings.

In many cases, a pack rat’s home or apartment is essentially a huge tinderbox.

Bogard, who visits about 15 people a week, is part of the patchwork of public services--including the city’s Department of Building and Safety and the Los Angeles County Department of Health--struggling to help treat hoarders while working to prevent safety and health problems.

In rare cases, usually when criminal activity is taking place on a pack-rat property, or when a hoarder continuously disregards the efforts of Bogard and the other departments, the city attorney’s office will cite the hoarder and pursue a remedy in court.

Bogard has worked with pack rats for five years, after a long career as a paramedic. About 28 pack rats from the San Fernando Valley are included in his caseload of 150.

They include a wealthy widow in the Hollywood Hills, an elderly man in South-Central whose refusal to allow inspections prompted a police-accompanied entry and an Arleta octogenarian who is getting cleanup help from a group of volunteers.

Although pack rats come from all racial and economic groups, Bogard said most of his cases involve elderly women, many of whom lived through the Depression. “It’s strange, but maybe after going through that time period, throwing away something takes on a whole new meaning,” he said.

Most pack rats suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder, a little-understood mental illness, said Dianne Sands, of the Tarzana-based Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation of California.

They suffer simultaneously from an urge to surround themselves with a safety net of material objects and a crippling fear of discarding anything, even the most irrelevant of items, Sands said. For some, throwing away a little slip of paper that’s 25 years old can be a “morbid, paralyzing event,” she added.

UCLA doctors have studied obsessive compulsive pack rats for years. According to Dr. Sanjaya Saxena, director of the UCLA OCD Research Program, almost every hoarder has a cluster of symptoms that includes acute indecisiveness, procrastination and avoidance.

“Usually, hoarders never get going with plans for a cleanup,” Saxena said. “The stuff they collect piles up and piles up. They don’t know where to start.”

Saxena and his colleagues are planning a study in the fall to track physical abnormalities in the brains of hoarders. He said a combination of drug treatment and cognitive therapy can bring pack rats back to some sense of normalcy.

But Bogard said most refuse help. “They’re strong-willed, individualistic . . . it’s not easy to get them to accept treatment,” he said.

Bogard is the closest thing to therapy that many of the city’s hoarders will ever get. Although he is capable of ordering pack rats to court, demolishing their property or forcing cleanup by outside contractors, the fire inspector chooses to handle his cases with a gentle touch.

“It’s the best way to reach them,” he said, recalling the many longtime hoarders he has persuaded to clean up on their own, and the cards and phone calls he has received years after helping people leave behind their world of clutter.

“Dennis has a natural empathy for the people he works with. Many of them trust him more than anyone else,” said Bogard’s boss, Capt. Mark Gozawa.

Bogard, a tall, lanky many with a warm, unruffled demeanor, acknowledges having a soft spot for the people he works with. “My mom, she was sort of a pack rat, a collector of stuff,” he said. “When I go to see these folks sometimes they’re a bit like my mom.”

And a bit like Bogard, too.

“Well, yes, I’m a collector too . . . but in a healthy way,” he said, owning up to collecting hundreds of dolls, a hobby started when his kids were young. He pays hundreds of dollars for storage space to house the collection.

Walking into Ana’s yard, Bogard seemed to gain the trust of the elderly woman, who recently warded off firefighters who had come to inspect her property.

Bogard knew that if he adopted a confrontational attitude, he’d get it shot back at him by his feisty new friend. So he looked her in the eyes and listened to her stories, some real, some imagined.

He encouraged her to continue removing the junk from her yard--a process she recently started with help from friends and family members. He also prodded her to clear the backyard of dried grass that could catch fire.

“That man’s a good man for helping me,” said Ana, negotiating her way around stacks of boxes and cans. “I’m tryin’. I told him I’m going to try to be better. But you know, I got a lot of stuff.”

Then she smiled and looked out at Bogard and her yard full of memories: “These are a whole lot of good things.”

Information about the UCLA Obsessive Compulsive Hoarders Research Study and UCLA’s therapy programs for pack rats may be obtained by calling (310) 794-7305.