All creatures great and small

At 86, long-time animal rights activist Hilda Friedstein says adieu to the ISPCA.

hilda friedstein 298 (photo credit: )
hilda friedstein 298
(photo credit: )
Not long after the Shabbat sun sank into the horizon last week, dozens of dogs could be heard howling like wolves from inside their kennels. They were the stray, the infirm, the abandoned and the abused. All were awaiting adoption at a south Tel Aviv animal shelter of the Israel Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals (ISPCA), otherwise known as Tzar Ba'alei Chayim. Maybe it was just the hour when one can sense the approaching work week and feel the restlessness of sentient beings as the day of rest ends. There is a more romantic explanation for the howling, which reached a crescendo the moment Johannesburg-born Hilda (nee Joffe) Friedstein, 86, announced her official retirement as ISPCA chairperson and said her final goodbyes to the staff, with whom she had worked over the past 40 years. The dogs were perhaps paying homage by serenading Friedstein, who is arguably Israel's first animal rights activist. She decided that 86 was the right time to retire and pick up some other passions left in the wake while caring for animals all these years. She plans to return to playing the piano and spend more time with her family. From picking ticks off cats and dogs in the late 1960s to chairing the ISPCA, Friedstein has helped change the way animals are treated in Israel. Her specialty is domestic animals, but she can talk dexterously about anything from the recent bird flu epidemic to animals in the meat industry. She herself is a vegetarian, who feeds her dogs a no-meat diet at home. One of her beloved dogs died a few months ago at the age of 17. Friedstein points out that it was her choice to retire. "I reached this age and am perfectly fit with no problems of health," she says. "One doesn't go on living forever, and I was never sufficiently at home. My husband was always worried about me when I was supposed to come home at 6 p.m. and I rolled in at 7:00 or 8:00 because of an emergency at the shelter." She recalls the early days. The ISPCA was started in 1927 during the British Mandate. By 1948 it was taken over by a committee of Jewish volunteers, but they were unable to run the center from 1948 to 1953 during mass immigration into the country. "People hopped into the animal shelter, and it was difficult at the time to say 'Get out, we need to put animals there instead,'" she says, noting that by the mid-1950s the shelters were operating again. Friedstein came to the ISPCA as a volunteer in the late 1960s. "I would come in two or three days a week. I used to go from kennel to kennel on Rehov Salame. There were hundreds of dogs and cats, and my job was to go around with kerosene and pluck ticks and fleas off the animals. By the time I made my rounds, the animals I had started with had fleas again," she says. "Eventually, I was given more responsibilities." Today, Friedstein believes that the term "animal rights" is too advanced for most people to grasp. "People have an obligation to prevent suffering to animals and other people, but there are some who don't have the conditions to prepare the right attitude toward love," she explains. "And since we live in a world where people kill millions of animals a year for food, it is hard to mention animal rights." There are problems in Europe, too. Not long ago on TV she saw a man from a Nordic country slaughter a goat by sticking his hand through a slit in its stomach and wrenching its heart out with his bare hands. Israel has its own special issues, admits Friedstein, who came to Israel when she was 20 years old. "Since my beginnings in animal welfare, I looked at our own particular [Jewish] customs and the way the killing of chickens was done before Yom Kippur for kapparot, a mitzva to wave a chicken around your head and then slaughter it. It upsets me that people sacrifice animals in this way." Rabbi Achia Shlomo Amitai of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu says that the practice of kapparot before Yom Kippur is not a mitzva but a custom. "The Shulhan Aruch is against kapparot," says Achia. "In fact, the big black and white letters are against it, too. The Sephardim do it, and so do some Hassidim; others do the same with fish. The ones who do it don't see it as a mitzva; they see it is a nice custom." There is no shortage of regulations relating to how animals should be treated by Jews. The laws regarding treatment of animals are referred to as "tzar ba'alei chayim," the prevention of cruelty to animals. Jews are commanded to let their animals rest on Shabbat. They are forbidden to muzzle an ox while it is working in the field so as not to prevent it from eating. A Jew is supposed to feed an animal or pet before feeding oneself. There are commandments relating to the emotional well-being of animals as well. Jews are prohibited from yoking together animals of different species to plough a field; Jews are expected to relieve an animal of its burden, even if one does not know the animal's owner. One mitzva considered by some to have a special measure of importance is the instruction to chase a bird away from a nest if one wants to take its eggs. Achia agrees that this is a special mitzva from which many things can be learned. "We should be aware of the emotions of the mother bird toward its young and eggs. The mitzva of not slaughtering a cow on the same day one wants to slaughter its calf is derived from this," he says. Speaking of slaughterhouse rules, the meat industry is one of Friedstein's biggest beefs. "I am hoping that things will change after the bird flu incident. It is good that Israel didn't throw its chickens and ducks into bags and then bury them alive, a practice done in other countries," she says. In Israel, the Ministry of Agriculture was prepared for what would be a mass slaughtering of foul. Instead of live burials, the chickens and turkeys were poisoned via their drinking water. After ingestion, they went into a coma and died a couple of minutes later. Friedstein recalls a heart-breaking story she heard from one farmer who had to kill his turkeys. "'I heard them calling for me in the morning,' the farmer told me. 'They were thirsty. When they did get the water, they were poisoned and carted away.'" Friedstein says that the very concept of the meat industry is rotten. "These huge concentration camps of live animals are very unhealthy. Outwardly they can fatten them up, but the animals are not healthy on the inside." Veterinarian Zachi Nvo, who heads the ISPCA in Tel Aviv, thinks the avian flu scare has been blown up by media hype and that it mirrors what happened with SARS and Ebola. "How many people died from avian flu?" he asks. "Maybe a hundred in the entire world. Do you know that every quarter of an hour, someone dies from rabies in developing countries? This problem [the avian flu virus] needs to be treated in the right proportion by using vaccines," he says. Unlike other animal rights organizations, such as Ahava, Nvo doesn't think that animals deserve the same level of rights as humans. "If I try to give animals rights, it doesn't do them justice," he says. "If I let all the dogs and cats be free, then the dogs would kill the cats. Instead, I try to think about how the animals will benefit from what we do for them." Nvo says that there is a problem among animal rights organizations in that some activists are too fanatical, declaring that animals deserve the same freedoms as people. "Some activists think that we can set animals free into the wide, everlasting plains of Israel and that they will be fine. These plains do not exist." Instead, says Nvo, "At the ISPCA we try to change the things that can be changed. We need more tolerance based on knowledge, and we need to study what is good." One issue that needs facing today, says Nvo, is that of gambling on dog fights. "The fights always involve criminal elements, he says, noting that he has heard about fights in Jaffa, Netanya and Ofakim. Some breeds, which Nvo preferred not to single out, are particularly good for fighting because they were bred to endure pain. "The poor animals are stolen from legal owners, mistreated and abused. There are other dogs, too, of more gentle breeds that are thrown into the ring to be used like a punching bag." Beyond the fights, poisoning occurs on a regular basis throughout Tel Aviv-Jaffa and is something that people should be concerned about. "Just last week there were some more poisonings in Jaffa," he reports. Nvo would not reveal the name of the poison, for fear it would lead to more deaths. The poison being used is widely available and accessible to all, he says. One citizen who is taking matters into her own hands is Shomit Tsur, a volunteer at the ISPCA for the past year. She can be spotted driving around south Tel Aviv and Jaffa with a camera and video recorder, where she stalks animal abusers. Donkey and horse abusers beware: Tsur is equipped with a night vision feature on her camera and has a knack for singling out the bad guys. Once she captures someone on tape harming an animal, she calls Nvo, the Tel Aviv municipality and the police. Three officials need to be at the scene of the crime to take custody of an animal. The ISPCA can house eight donkeys or horses temporarily. Thanks to Tsur's help, about four donkeys and horses are brought to the ISPCA every month. "These days, it's especially bad," says Tsur, "because the price of iron is so high. You can see guys collecting it all around Tel Aviv and putting it onto a cart pulled by a donkey or a horse. Sometimes the animals have to carry up to one ton, and they collapse from the weight. The animals are always old and sick, and injured too." When Tsur starts her rounds, she usually doesn't have to wait long to home in on an abuser. She talks about one rescue made two months ago, after she spotted three youngsters from Jaffa (the oldest was about 14) whipping and beating a donkey. They didn't know she was filming them and were surprised when the authorities showed up. They told her that they had bought the donkey the previous day for NIS 600. That day, the donkey was taken from the boys and renamed Shlomit to honor its rescuer. It now lives on a moshav near Rehovot. In the past, Tsur tried going into the heart of Jaffa to catch abusers, such as Nissim Mechoulam, who butchered abused horses and sold them as meat. He was arrested about 18 months ago, says Tsur, and was only given a NIS 500 fine. "I'm afraid to go there. I learned to bust them on the main roads without their friends around," she says. The volunteers' efforts can only be made possible with the help of lawmakers who give the authorities the ability to take animals away from their owners. The Jerusalem Post spoke with the country's foremost lawmaker on animal welfare, veterinarian Dganit Ben-Dov, who came to the ISPCA to honor Friedstein on Saturday night. Ben-Dov's official title is controller for the protection of animals at the Ministry of Agriculture. She is ultimately trying to make animal welfare laws more realistic so that people can actually adhere to them. "I am against the term 'animal rights.' It implies that there is a big brother or someone else who will take responsibility for the problem," she says. Indeed, many people called Ben-Dov, shocked to see that so many chickens were being killed after bird flu landed in Israel. "I said to them, 'What do you think the chickens are being kept for?'" Ben-Dov thinks that many of the people who want to protect animals do not really understand what animals are. She believes this problem comes from modern life and living in cities. "A hundred years ago, the people who knew animals, knew animals." Today, she says, people are more inclined to get information about animals from books. To counteract this, city dwellers need more contact with animals, she says, and warns that people shouldn't treat animals like humans. Most days of the week, Ben-Dov sits in an office poring over animal welfare legislation and trying to make animal abuse definitions more universal. Currently when one talks about abuse, she says, it means dog fights or cosmetic alterations of a pet, such as the clipping of ears or tails. "The abuse on the periphery isn't our biggest problem. This purposeful, intentional abuse is the smallest part of the problem in Israel." She points to the cages outside the ISPCA. "Most of the animals here weren't exactly 'abused.' They were thrown out of home, but really their suffering is the same as those who were intentionally abused." To make our laws more up to date, Ben-Dov is building on laws first written in 1994 to better define animal abuse. She is trying to involve people in the meat and packing industry and those who transport animals around the country, to find ways in which she can make their and the animals' lives most compatible. She is finding it very hard to construct these laws. "The industry won't comment because they believe that if they won't play the game, then the game won't be played." By following some of the EU directives on animal welfare, she says that Israel is getting regulations of its own, slowly but surely. The recent second verdict of shutting down the foie gras industry in Israel, for example, was something she was responsible for making happen. "We need to strike a balance between farmers' needs and animal welfare," she stresses. At this point, the foyer of Friedstein's retirement party was empty, save for a few people such as Nvo, who was finding ways to store the leftover food. Friedstein and her husband looked around for any last guests to thank before heading back to their home in Savyon. And outside, even though there was a storm brewing and rain had started to fall, for some reason the dogs were quiet. A long way from home Danuta Kowalczewska Zwolska's cats have gone on a hunger strike, and she is threatening to do the same. The 60-year-old Polish woman was arrested and brought to the Michal detention facility in Hadera a month ago for living and working in Israel on an expired visa. She has been wrestling with the Israeli authorities to take her two "Israeli" cats back to Poland. Ahava, an animal rights organization that started in response to the abandoned animals in Gush Katif last August, has come to her rescue. The organization is asking people to donate toward vaccinations and the high cost of transporting the animals to Poland. So far, volunteer-run Ahava has spent NIS 2,000 on Zwolska's case. "I am grateful to the good people of Ahava, who saved my cats and helped me in the darkest time of my life," said Zwolska. Ahava spokeswoman Tamara More says that beyond helping Zwolska, Israel must improve its image and the "shameful" way it handles foreign workers. The group is petitioning other foreign workers to have their cats vaccinated in the event of deportation. If an animal has its vaccinations in advance, it is easier to rubber stamp its transfer, says More. Although other foreign workers have had to leave beloved pets behind, Zwolska's proposed hunger strike is an extreme illustration of the anguish foreign workers face upon deportation. Zwolska came to Israel as a caretaker to an elderly person. When her client died, she lost her permit to work in the country and retreated into the shadows among illegal workers and started cleaning homes. She has been here for six years. When she found her two cats, who are 1.5 years and seven months old, they were on the brink of death. They lived in her one-bedroom apartment in Tel Aviv. They are being cared for by an Ahava volunteer until the necessary paperwork comes through. Ahava is optimistic that she and her cats will be able to go back to Poland. More credits the exemplary attitude of one of the prison directors, Adi Segev-Shitrit, for speeding up the process. Segev-Shitrit called More to determine how the problem could be handled, although it was Zwolska who called the Ahava helpline from Hadera. So far Ahava has handled the cases of 70 foreign workers in Israel. "We have helped 30 people who wanted to take their pets with them and 40 who couldn't. Blood tests alone cost NIS 500," says More. Ahava is still suffering from the financial blow of rescuing animals after the Disengagement. Out of 200 cats collected, they still need to find homes for 180. "One bulldozer driver didn't seem to mind that a wall was falling on top of some kittens," says More. Ahava also has 100 dogs in need of homes. Finding homes for dogs is easier, she notes. Unlike some other organizations, Ahava does not euthanize animals. It operates within a framework of 50 volunteers, who act as foster parents to cats and dogs. Ahava's base stations are in Herzliya and Kiryat Tivon; future plans include a no-kill shelter. "We think animals should be given the same respect for life as human beings. We take responsibility," says More. Ahava also wants to open clinics where people can spay and neuter cats for free. Once it has the funds, Ahava plans to go to the gates of Gaza and Israeli Arab cities and offer NIS 10 for each stray cat or dog. "It's important to be involved in Arab towns because people are not aware of the torture going on there," says More. She expects it will be harder to find distressed animals in Gaza. "We won't risk the lives of people to go in. It could happen tomorrow, depending on money. We have the facilities to take the pets." To contact Ahava, call (03) 644-6777