One cold winter day with the winds raging on the Carmel, two wet bedraggled cats appeared on our porch. We gave them food and water and they took shelter for the rest of the winter under the pergola. Moreover they invited their live-in-companions and within a few months they were fruitful and multiplied - and then were 12, a truly cat-astrophic situation.
They wait each morning by the kitchen door and as soon as one of us appears to put the kettle on for coffee, they plead and whine for their breakfast. In their wisdom they collect and communicate useful information. Two of them, sunning themselves early one morning on the roof outside our bedroom, looked in the window and stared at me. The ticking of their little brains could almost be heard as they put two and two together and realized that the couple still lazing in bed long after dawn was the source of their food.
So now they take it in turns to sit on that roof early each morning to remind me that their breakfast is overdue, even though I have repeatedly told them that I am not a morning person. Because they still live as extended families, the mothers are still grooming and feeding the kittens, even though they are well beyond the age of separation.
When replete, they settle in the flower-pots on the porch, not deterred even when I planted a small cactus in each one to protect the plants. Much as we love cats, the smell and the fleas were making our porch decidedly unattractive for tea-parties and barbecues. I even ended up at the chiropractor because they tripped me up when, planning to enjoy a quiet Shabbat morning outside, I was balancing a cup of coffee, a book and a bowl of cornflakes.
Meanwhile the kittens were growing and we were increasingly concerned that they would continue multiplying. Needing help I avoided the societies that include euthanasia in their definition of cat welfare, and eventually got through to Hovovei Hatulim, the Israel Cat Lovers Society, founded in 1966. Optimistically, I requested that they take some of the cats for adoption but was assured that the most they could do was to pick up the cats, subsidize the cost of spaying and immunization, and bring them back again.
Keren Zinger is expert at catching cats without scaring them. She enticed them into cages, and within three hours had all the cats packed up ready to go to the vet. "I used to be a secretary but I am passionate about cats," explained Zinger, who decided on a career change and now spends her time and skills - at a much lower salary - persuading cats what is good for them.
Twenty four hours later, the cats were back on our porch and we resigned to taking care of them until we can find them good homes. We bought a giant bag of cat food. They still trip me up and leap through the door every time it opens, but they are cleaner and look healthier.
Curious about the people who work so hard voluntarily to care for cats, I contacted Maya Ringel, the spokeswoman of the Cat Lovers Society in Haifa, and we met at their shelter in the pastoral surroundings of Kfar Galim on the Carmel coast. In the surprisingly clean shelter, veterinarian Dr. Shai Ronen, who studied his profession in the USA, was treating some of the chronically ill cats who are kept in their own "ward." "We feed them and treat them and provide them with a good quality of life until the end," he said.
In the next area were housed kittens and young cats who were not yet fully immunized, and in another large area lived a number of fully-grown, very contented and well-fed cats who appeared to relate well to their peers, or if tired, rested on swing-seats or old soft chairs and cushions.
The society works with several veterinarians who offer their services at reduced cost. Ringel, who has volunteered for "society" for 15 years, laments the lack of support from Haifa municipality. "This mayor was voted into office on a green ticket and animal welfare was on the written agenda in his election brochure, but Haifa falls far behind other cities in terms of supporting our aims," she says.
In fact, a grant was established by the previous mayor in 1998 which enabled the society to spay nearly 2,000 cats. Today this grant is in real terms significantly less. However the municipality does allow the use of the land on which the shelter operates. "Many municipalities including Tel Aviv, Herzliya, Acre and even the nearby Krayot offer a free neutering program," Ringel noted.
Readers may respond by questioning the priorities of providing funds for animals when there are so many humans in distress in Israel. However, concern for animals and education of children to respect and care for them, go together with concern for humanity. A cruel child who torments neighborhood cats needs to be closely watched because his next victim could be a child or weaker member of society. The saying: "A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest," has been attributed to Mahatma Ghandi, Churchill and Truman, among others.
Viewers of the popular TV show Animal Hospital have seen these free walk-in clinics in the UK staffed and equipped by the state-supported Animal Welfare Society, where children and the poor and homeless are encouraged to bring their animals for advice and treatment.
In Israel too, there is a true love of animals among, for example, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, but many people do not have the means to pay for neutering, and unwanted litters are abandoned to forage in garbage bins.
The Israel Cat Lovers Society's front line of activity is the rescue of abandoned and street cats, and spaying and immunization. The Second Lebanon War and evacuation of northern settlements left a heartbreaking population of abandoned animals. "This was widely publicized but brought us in more stray cats rather than donations," Ringel wryly pointed out.
The society's aims include education and advocacy, arousing the awareness through schools and a hotline on feline care and the importance of spaying and immunization, particularly to prevent illegal and cruel methods of extermination such as poisoning. Youngsters are encouraged to help at information centers and be involved in running the shelter.
The life blood of the organization is the team of volunteers who staff the telephone service and raise funds. The shelter veterinarian receives a minimum salary, as do the staff who care for the animals night and day. Although the shelter constantly takes in distressed cats, the public are also encouraged to take responsibility. Advice about feeding and grooming, collecting the cats and subsidizing the cost of spaying help cat-lovers continue caring for stray cats in their neighborhood.
The shelter itself costs NIS 30,000 a month to maintain. "We are a no-kill society," Ringel emphasizes. "The adult cats and kittens are kept here for a lifetime if necessary, but we hope that people will come and adopt them."
And indeed the "residents" of this shelter enjoy a clean, comfortable environment, which is encouraging for those who come to choose a cat of whatever age. Those who choose a cat must commit to paying the subsidized fee for spaying, explained Ringel in an attempt to curb the population explosion in the area.
So where does the money come from? Ringel works hard to recruit funds from overseas, and there is constant generous support from the World Society for the Protection of Animals and other overseas groups, predominantly from the UK. "It is a cause of embarrassment that overseas donors come and see the state of neglect of animals in our country," she says.
There is also some support from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and fundraising campaigns are organized in Israel, but more volunteers are needed. The hotline receives about 600 calls a month, but because of a lack of volunteers it sometimes takes time to process requests for help. Messages are dealt with in order of priority: One of the services is the rescue of animals stuck in trees or on high roofs, or victims of violence or abuse.
Cats are intelligent, clean and good companions. It is a myth that they are stand-offish. Two years after our aliya, I visited the cat we had left behind with a neighbor, and she immediately jumped on my knee and started purring. Once they establish a relationship of trust, they are extremely affectionate and loyal - and they keep the rats and snakes away.
Israel Cat Lovers Society: www.isracat.org.il; (04) 824-4724