Vetting the vets

‘Metro’ takes to the streets with the Tel Aviv Municipal Veterinary Services

tel aviv shelter 370 (photo credit: Inbal Aharoni)
tel aviv shelter 370
(photo credit: Inbal Aharoni)
It’s after dark, and at the hour when most families across the city are sitting down to dinner, Avishai Rozen is climbing out of an animal ambulance, full swing into his shift as an animal inspector for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality. In his hands (but held at arm’s length) is a small dog, a mix of pinscher and something else. It is shaking and shivering and is covered in its own vomit.
A veterinarian opens the door of the city’s animal shelter. “Poor thing,” says Dr. Israel Holzman, one of the municipal veterinarians on staff.
“Yes, he vomited during the ride and he was scared from being in the cage,” Rozen explains.
Holzman passes a wand over the little guy.
“He has no chip,” he says out loud. “How old do you think he is, Avishai?” “Maybe four months,” Rozen replies.
“Yes, four, four and a half months,” Holzman agrees.
The city’s veterinary department provides services to the 400,000-plus humans and countless non-humans that that reside within Tel Aviv’s borders. These include operating an animal shelter with the capacity to house some 70 dogs, providing spaying, neutering and health care for both cats and dogs, sending out city inspectors who check on animal welfare and perform animal rescues, and overseeing meat inspections for the products sold within the city markets.
In addition to its human, canine and feline inhabitants, Tel Aviv is home to horses and donkeys, jackals, foxes and birds, among other animals, scattered throughout the fields on the outskirts of the city, and in the parks, according to Dr.
Zvi Galin, the head municipal veterinarian. But the cats and dogs are the primary focus of the department’s services.
“In the shelter we care for feral cats and dogs – the cats that are brought to us go through spaying or neutering, and are then returned to where they came from.” Abandoned dogs that arrive at the shelter are housed there until foster families and adoptive families can be found for them.
“Malka, come here,” says Holzman. Malka walks over to Holzman and slinks in between his feet, rubbing her head against his legs. It’s a Friday morning, and the municipal shelter’s grounds are full of barking dogs, busy volunteers, potential adoptive families, and this small, friendly white cat who is looking for some loving.
“Poor Malka,” Holzman says. Her face is covered with mucus, caked under her eyes. “She has a cold and maybe also an infection, and I gave her some antibiotics, now we’re waiting to see if they help.”
The municipality began its program of spaying and neutering feral cats in 1994, according to Galin.
This replaced the city’s prior method of poisoning and was in line with the new “no-kill” principle – both for feral cats and abandoned dogs – that over the past two decades has become more common worldwide.
“There has been major development in public awareness regarding the rights of animals that wasn’t there 18 years ago,” says Galin. “Then it was more evenly split between people who said you should put the animals to sleep, and those who said you should put them in shelters. Today, those who believe in putting them to sleep are a minority.”
The municipality has joined forces with the nearly 5,000 residents regularly feeding the feral cat populations of Tel Aviv to implement its population management program.
“Those who feed the cats and want to have them neutered or spayed can call in,” Galin explains.
“We ask that the day before we are scheduled to take the cats, they not feed them because then they are easier to catch. We do the operation and 24 hours later return them to their original location.
This way there is less noise, fewer births and fewer cats in heat.”
Walking into the caged area of the city’s animal shelter is reminiscent of a prison movie, but instead of catcalls and whistles, there are the barks, yelps, growls and cries of dozens of dogs, of all colors, shapes, sizes and breeds, each clamoring for individual attention.
They stick their paws under the gates, their muzzles through the bars, some jump up and down, and others stand on their hind legs, resting their paws on the cage. Regardless of how they act, the message seems to be the same: “Pick me, pick me!” The shelter has the capacity to house up to 70 dogs, according to Galin, plus some 40 to 50 dogs are placed in foster homes at any given time. The shelter also spays, neuters and immunizes the dogs it houses, in addition to offering rabies immunization to dogs brought in by their owners from all over the city.
There are some 25 adult volunteers who come in several times a week to give the dogs human companionship – they walk them, play with them and check on their food and water.
An after-work crowd of volunteers has gathered in a building of Tel Aviv’s municipal inspections department. On the wall hangs a sign reading “The goal: Ensuring the quality of life in the city.” A few fluffy, poodle-like dogs lounge around on the floor, faithfully watching their owners. Their masters, along with the other humans, are being led through a session on animal medicine by a city veterinarian.
The sleeves of his button-down shirt are rolled up and he is all business.
“Let’s do a review. This is horse anatomy, but it is basically the same for all four-legged creatures,” the man says, as he slaps an illustration of the heart of a horse up on the screen. They talk about anemia, animal tourniquets, feline blood transfusions and more. “Cats have 22 blood types,” the veterinarian tells the audience.
“Yeah – they have nine lives, and each one has a few types of blood!” a dark-haired young man in the back quips. His fellow volunteers chuckle in amusement.
In addition to providing care for the canines, volunteers are responsible for the shelter’s website, on which are listed all the dogs awaiting adoptive families. Volunteers manage the social media – Facebook, Instagram; Israeli Internet activity such as on Ynet, Nana and WinWin; public relations efforts including appearances and pitches on news and radio shows, and they are on-site during adoption days, assisting in matching up dogs with potential families.
Later in the evening, the audience is introduced to Leah, a big, friendly, golden-haired dog. She lives with Rozen, who in addition to serving as a municipal animal inspector is a professional dog trainer.
Originally selected to be an assistance dog for the handicapped, Leah failed her training because, as Rozen puts it, “she always wants to play, when she sees a cat she wants to play with it, so she couldn’t work with the handicapped.”
Today, Leah and Rozen travel around the city, and via projects and workshops, go into schools and organizations to help people in other ways. “She still works as a service dog,” he explains. “I’ve taught her to open the door, or therapeutic actions like putting her head on your knee.”
Tonight, Leah is showing off her talents.
“She is a little shy,” Rozen tells the volunteers. 
“Artza [down], Leah.” She lies down.
“Talk to me.” Leah barks, the audience “awwws” in unison.
“Give a hug, Leah,” “roll over, Leah,” “give me a kiss, Leah.” The volunteers laugh.
Then Rozen begins to talk to them about dog behavior.
“The problems in behavior come from the mistakes of dog owners,” he reminds the volunteers. “The dog needs to know that it is the dog, and the human being is the human being, and not the other way around. It creates a giant mess if we don’t know to identify and put limits on these things.”
The volunteers listen intently, throwing out questions every once in a while. The room is full of laughs and smiles, everyone seems very, very upbeat. The volunteers come from all walks of life, and from as far away as Canada, Zimbabwe, the United Kingdom and Slovakia. But regardless of their differences, one thing is evident – everyone here is a dog lover.
“They really do sacred work,” says Rozen, “I am very proud of this place, the work that we do here and of all the volunteers.”
A few nights later, Rozen is out in the animal ambulance. He’s just come from picking up an injured wild ring-necked parakeet from a private veterinary clinic and dropping it off at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. They will most likely deliver it to the Zoological Center Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan (also called the Ramat Gan Safari), which has staff specializing in birds.
Now Rozen is headed out to Jaffa, to do a welfare check on three dogs and two horses. His partner, a municipal driver named Eran, eases the vehicle to a rest by a dark field, hidden behind an empty parking lot, and stuck in between a number of old, dilapidated buildings, in an area that doesn’t look very conducive to living. The last time that they were here, they came with the police, Rozen explains, but the owner was cooperative, so this time they have come alone.
It is cold, and the field is muddy, but Rozen climbs out of the truck to check on things from up close.
“I told him to get the dogs licenses, to give the animals water and to provide them with some sort of shelter,” says Rozen.
But the dogs are already gone, taken to back to Tiberias. Just a horse stands alone, hunkered by a tree with a plastic canvas strung above it for shelter.
“People call us for all sorts of things,” Rozen explains as he walks back to the car. “For example, if a cat is stuck in a tree or if it is mewing,” he says.
“Okay, so a cat is in a tree, or it’s mewing, but that is natural, why should I bring a cat out of a tree? We do not need to get involved in everything.”
Another issue the municipal veterinary services are involved in is meat inspections. Throughout the day, refrigerated trucks pull into the shelter’s parking lot, and one of the veterinarians goes out to meet them.
“We are responsible for public health, that’s our job. One of the things we do is check the meat before it is sold,” Holzman says. He’s got a meat thermometer in hand, and is ready to sign off on one of the truck drivers’ paperwork.
The meat and poultry sold to consumers is overseen by a veterinarian through every step of the process – from the farm to the slaughterhouse to packaging and transport, and finally, to stores and markets. In addition to the veterinarians who check the trucks coming in, there are others who go out and do spot checks on the products in the markets.
“We make sure that it is suitable for human consumption,” says Holzman.
Still, with all the things they do, there is one service of the municipal veterinary department that people are most familiar with – the adoption of dogs.
It is a perfect, sunny Friday morning, and though the air is a bit chilly, the grounds are full of barking canines and talking people. Children sit on a bench cuddling small puppies on their laps. Families are collected in bunches, dogs waiting to meet and greet them.
Volunteers wander from person to person, dog to dog.
In his small office off to the side, Holzman is busy, checking dogs before releasing them back to their owners, some new, others old. At the moment, he is with Sima Hershkovits and Nuni, who have only just met but are going home together.
Hershkovits came after seeing a newspaper article on dogs for adoption at the municipal shelter. She was cooking Shabbat dinner when she took a break to read the paper.
“I told my son, ‘let’s go there now,’ and I left the kitchen in the middle.”
She holds Nuni on her shoulder as the dog happily snuggles against her.
“I came and petted her and she licked my finger.
When I petted her sister, she bit my finger,” Hershkovits says with a laugh. “Even though her sister was prettier, I’m not taking a dog that bites me. I wanted something I could pet and take care of and I wanted to have someone to talk to when I am alone. It makes me feel good to adopt a dog, and it does them good. If I could I would take them all,” she says with a smile.
At the end of the afternoon, the volunteers take the dogs that are left back to their cages. They’ve checked their food and water. They’ve given them love and attention. But the volunteers have finished their day, and the animals will soon be on their own for another night. The dogs bark as their caretakers leave. But after a few minutes, the barks die down. All except for the woeful cries of one lonely canine, desperately calling out for someone to take him home.