Love 'em or leave 'em, it is difficult not to notice the many cats that roam the streets of Tel Aviv and most other cities in Israel. According to experts in relevant fields, Israel has a particularly large street cat overpopulation problem. In the words of a veterinarian from central Israel: "No other western country has as severe a problem as Israel with street cats."
The same veterinarian claims these issues are constantly being dealt with in the US and Europe, whereas "in Israel it's as though no one cares. There is no awareness here."
As there is no statewide policy on how to deal with street cats, the fate of these felines is left in the hands of a largely apathetic public, various organizations that claim to lack sufficient funding and seem to have a mutual animosity that would put cat-fights to shame, and individual "cat feeders." As opposed to countries with harsh winters that bring about some measure of population control, the mild Israeli climate allows for an ever-growing population of street cats, curbed only by small-scale neutering/spaying efforts, and controversial mercy-killings.
Other than the cats themselves, the main players in the field are voluntary organizations, municipalities, private veterinarian doctors, private citizens who either support cats or complain about them, and the state. The voluntary organizations include large ones such as the S.O.S. Animals organization, Let the Animals Live organization, Hovevei Hatulim (Haifa) and several separate branches of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
A cat society that was run by a Ms. Rivi Mayer for many years shut down two years ago, and some of its volunteers founded two separate organizations/shelters for cats: One operates on the premises of what used to be the "the Cat Welfare Society of Israel" in Hadera and another one found a home in Kibbutz Harel. There are also smaller organizations, such as a new consumer-oriented group called "Street Cat Feeders," who run an online Tapuz community under the same name. An umbrella organization called "Noah" exists, but it is not clear how much unity and cooperation there is between the various organizations. Emotions run high on all sides of the equation, and in the course of writing this article, this writer was threatened by a spokesperson of one of the organizations, who demanded that certain statements be made about a rival group.
Although there is general consensus among the different groups and individuals that spaying and neutering is the best solution to the cat overpopulation problem, this solution is somehow not implemented in a widespread and effective enough way. Some activists blame the state for not making this issue a priority, and not legislating and funding such policies.
A veterinarian who spoke on condition of anonymity claimed that, as admirable as are the localized efforts at providing free or low-cost neutering/spaying services, international experience has shown these efforts are only effective when they are implemented on a statewide basis, especially in a country as small as Israel. This doctor insists the government must legislate and fund such neutering/spaying.
Dr. Zvi Galin, Director of the Veterinarian Department at Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality, disagrees with the call for a statewide policy and maintains that spaying/neutering of animals should be implemented at the local level. "I don't believe in legislation," he says, "as what is legislated is not always implemented. I don't need a law to force me to do something good."
In this case, the "good" thing is an internationally-known method for controlling cat populations. The method is called "Trap, Neuter, Return," or "TNR." The concept that underlies this method is the conviction that it is not possible - or desirable - to completely and permanently be rid of cats. Once this theory is accepted as fact, Dr. Galin says, there are four options of how to deal with the cat problem: kill them, legislate laws against feeding street cats, do nothing, or employ the TNR method.
Galin explains that as cats are territorial animals, if they are killed, a vacuum is created in the area these specific cats used to inhabit. Many experts support Galin's claim that this vacuum will soon be filled by other cats, so that the killing will have proven to be futile. "We have records from the Veterinarian Services that operated in Tel Aviv under the British Mandate in 1931," says Galin. Apparently cat overpopulation was a problem even back then, and according to Galin "the records show that between 1931 and 1993 over 150,000 cats were put to sleep. And yet, despite all this (killing), the cat overpopulation problem still exists."
Galin does not support the idea of killing the cats, as he claims it is both inhumane and ineffective. He seems very pleased with the TNR method he introduced in Tel Aviv when he took office in 1994, and says that in his 13 years as municipal veterinarian doctor, the municipality performed 30,000 such operations, approximately 1,400 of them in 2007.
Galin says each municipal veterinarian should implement the TNR policy to the best of his/her ability, within the constraints of the municipal budget. The local municipalities each have a veterinarian department, and each city thus formulates its own local policies regarding cats and other animal issues. Tel Aviv is considered very advanced in its cat policy, as it was the first municipality to adopt the TNR model, and it provides the TNR services free of charge.
Galin says, of course, that it would be good to have a bigger budget to enable more neutering, but that by Israeli standards the municipal funding he receives is "very respectable."
Others are less happy with the cat situation in Tel Aviv and central Israel. As advanced as Tel Aviv services may be, the problem is obviously far from being solved. Stray cats are thus still taken off the streets by cat lovers, for a variety of reasons: Some cats are hit by vehicles, others are starving, and others still suffer from a host of feline diseases. When a citizen finds a cat in need of medical or other attention, s/he has limited options of what to do. The simplest solution is to adopt the cat, and care for it in or outside one's own home. If, however, a citizen does not wish to privately care for the cat, there are few places that will accept a stray cat on any permanent basis.
Organizations such as "Let the Animals Live" will take the pet in for medical care, but as they are not an animal shelter they cannot take in large numbers of healthy animals for any lengthy period of time. Similarly, S.O.S. Animals has foster homes for cats and dogs, but will usually ask private citizens to hold on to the pet and only bring it in on "adoption days," to see if the animal can find a new home.
There are very few animal shelters in Israel. Most have room for only a few hundred animals, and cannot accommodate the large number of stray pets that roam the streets. What, then, is the fate of the animals that do not find a home?
Most of the pro-animal groups are self-proclaimed "no-kill" organizations. A stark exception is the SPCA in Tel Aviv, that admits to putting animals to sleep as an ongoing policy. This chapter of the SPCA is subject to harsh criticism over the policy, which is considered highly problematic and unacceptable in modern times. Anat Refua of the Let the Animals Live organization claims, "It is important for me to warn the public not to hand cats and dogs over to the SPCA in Tel Aviv, because they kill 90 percent of them."
Ricki H. of the "Street Cat Feeders" organization uses harsher language, comparing SPCA practices to Nazi procedures. She claimed the process of selecting sick and old animals to be killed reminds her of the Nazi selection process, and that the SPCA (in Tel Aviv) is "one big terrible extermination camp."
Gadi Vitner, spokesperson for SPCA Israel, sent Metro the following written response to Ricki's claims: "SPCA Israel is the most professional organization in the world of abandoned animals and shielding them from sorrow. Whoever compares us to Nazis is worthy not of response, but rather of great contempt. Those same people who are shouting have not found the humane solutions that can serve as alternatives to euthanasia. According to Ministry of Agriculture statistics, SPCA performs the largest number of spaying and neutering (operations) in Israel. SPCA Israel will continue to prevent all animals that need shelter and protection from suffering sorrow and a life of disgrace."
It should be noted that during a phone interview, Vitner himself used some harsh words when discussing the need to put animals to sleep. He blamed the public, saying: "The public is at fault, is the real killerâ€¦ causes the mass killings of animals in Israel every year, because people are not spaying/neutering their petsâ€¦"
He also claimed that organizations that permit the public to adopt pets that were not neutered/spayed are committing a terrible crime against animals, and that "a holocaust of animals is taking place in Israel; it should be stoppedâ€¦ legislation should be advanced."
Vitner added that "the SPCA is not the problem, rather the result of years of neglect by a government that did not advance legislation regarding spaying and neutering, and subsidizing them." He says that during breeding seasons, 200 kittens are brought to SPCA every single day, including newborns. Vitner admits that the SPCA Israel does put them to sleep, because "who can deal with these amounts? And with the feeding? The newborns must be breastfed every two hours. I'd like someone to tell me they have a solution."
As far as state intervention is concerned, there is a long road ahead to any legislation on these issues. According to Galin, when former MK Avraham Poraz served as Minister of Interior, he increased funding for spaying and neutering of cats. However, noted a Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson, "Each municipality has an annual budget, and decides how to divide it. Some choose to [provide more or less] funding for the veterinarian department, it all depends on the municipality's wishes [priorities]. To say that there is no budget [for spaying and neutering] is a poor excuse."
The bottom line appears to be that Israel suffers from a combination of lack of awareness among the public regarding the grave importance of neutering and spaying of pets and street-cats, and an unfortunate lack of cooperation between the different relevant organizations.
Each organization seems to have good intentions, and they obviously do manage to get enough funding to continue their activities. And yet it seems that by working separately, and with mutual suspicion and even animosity, there is a huge waste of good intentions, energy and money that with proper cooperation could probably improve the situation for many of the very animals these organizations so wish to help.
A cat lover's legacy
My grandmother, may she rest in peace, used to cook chicken bits for her "chosen" street cats. Every day she collected edible leftover food from her own cooking and the dumpster at her building complex, and concocted meals that delighted her feline admirers. In late afternoon she would open the window in her modest, ground-level Tel Aviv apartment, to greet and then feed her loyal following of "yard" cats.
They were a very ragged-looking group. There was almost always at least one cat missing an eye, and a few others that bore the tell-tale signs of their rough outdoors life. Their own cat-hierarchy notwithstanding, Grandma devised her own pecking order for "her cats," as she affectionately called them. She always fed the nursing mother-cats first, the pregnant ones second, and only then the other cats - all subject to her decisions on who most deserved the best spoonfuls that day.
Personally, I never felt any great affection for cats. Though some of my closest friends are cat lovers, I doubt I'd take a feline into my home, even if my dog would put aside her own views on cats and permit such a transgression. However, I've made my peace with cats in my adult years, respecting the notion that they presumably keep snakes, mice and rats at bay. I'll take a cat over a rat any day of the week.