Animal farm in Sderot

What the Kassam rockets did to our four-legged friends.

sderot animal farm (photo credit: Courtesy)
sderot animal farm
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Shitrit family arrived in Sderot from Morocco. Shlomo, the father, found a job on a kibbutz. He would harness a donkey and go to work in a tiny cart. His excuse for keeping a donkey was that it was too far to walk, but several horses and sheep grazed in his large backyard because this peasant simply could not live without animals. Goats, chickens and geese rambled freely on other people's properties too; in the 1950s and '60s, Sderot was no more than a large village. Forty years went by, the town developed an industrial zone, three-story buildings and villas replaced barracks and residents no longer felt like country folk. Shlomo ignored his neighbors' pleas that a residential neighborhood was no place for livestock. They filed letters of complaint. The police would come to remove the animals, but each time the Shitrit children clutched at the horses, screaming as if their very lives were being taken away. The authorities capitulated and gave Shlomo land on the outskirts of Sderot to open an animal farm. It took a decade to build a beautiful ranch. Shlomo was now too old to handle the work, and David, the eldest of his nine children, took over the huge enterprise with hundreds of domestic animals. His brothers, Avram and Natan, helped him. They raised sheep and goats for meat, famous for its quality in Sderot and the surrounding communities. There were also numerous chickens, geese and pigeons. But the farm's main attraction were horses - about 60 that belonged to the owners, who rode since they had barely known how to walk, plus scores of others, boarded and trained on the property. The Shitrits invited Sderot residents to come for riding lessons, and dozens of parents and kids swarmed the ranch on evenings and days off, enjoying rides, playing with and feeding the baby animals. New immigrants arrived from the former USSR, and some children, left on their own because adults typically worked two jobs, hung out and helped at the farm. The Shitrits enjoyed everyone's respect. They did very well financially until Kassam rockets began to fall on Sderot and the Negev kibbutzim. AFTER ONE Kassam landed on the Shitrit farm, several visiting children had to be treated for hysteria. Another blast sent David's deaf-mute son to the hospital for shock. A nine-year-old girl was riding when her horse flew into a wild gallop triggered by the Red Alert warning of a rocket launch; this was the last time the child's father brought her to the ranch. Soon there were no more visitors: Sderot residents have been keeping away from open areas, where most casualties have occurred. So the Shitrits sold their horses. Several farm animals died in the explosions, and the goats and sheep began to have miscarriages. The Shitrits found shrapnel pieces in their fleece. "It's anxiety," confirmed a local veterinarian. "Nothing to be done. You've seen our animals." If you suddenly see a flock of pigeons flying in the same direction in Sderot, it's a safe bet that in a few seconds there will be a Kassam blast: The birds hear the Red Alert and, knowing what this means, dash to safety. The Red Alert sets off "the insane barking of the dogs throughout the town," reports Sderot Media Center director Noam Bedein. "Sometimes you hear these barks a few seconds before the siren itself." He says there are "packs of dogs moving freely. Big ones, small ones, new dogs" joining the pack when yet another family leaves, abandoning their pets. Bedein refers to veterinarian Rami Levin from Kibbutz Mefalsim, who says dogs arrive at his clinic suffering from skin disease caused by depression. Some have died of heart attacks. Levin remembers a dog that would run to the clinic when he heard the siren go off, hide under the table and refuse to get out from underneath for days. How do you reassure "man's best friend," who hides and cries when he hears the Red Alert, Bedein asks. "How do you comfort an old lady who has just witnessed her only friend jump out of the window on the fourth floor" after hearing that recorded female voice? The Shitrits sold hundreds of anxiety-stricken, self-aborting sheep and goats for meat. There was no longer anything to do on the farm, so David and Avram took jobs in town. But not their younger brother, who, like their late father, cannot live without animals. Once, Natan found his lost goat among another farmer's flock. When asked why he decided it was his, he said: "What do you mean? I recognized her face!" He "knew personally" every single sheep on the farm and wept over each one that died in an explosion. The man who worked 16 hours a day and woke up in the middle of the night to give his animals their shots now stays in bed most of the time. He tries to sleep, but he cannot. He complains of pains in different parts of his body, even though tests show nothing physically wrong with him. He says that he cannot find a job, but he is not looking. He wants his sheep back. His young family - with a 16-month-old baby - is falling apart because his wife understands but "can't stand his depression." "One time I was at the farm during a Kassam attack," recounts Natan's mother-in-law, Oshrat, a Sderot social worker. "Fifteen seconds of waiting and then an explosion. Not very near, actually. The place was almost empty; only three or four remaining horses grouped close to the fence after they'd heard the Red Alert. Maybe they felt it was better to stick it out together. "They looked like people I have seen many times in rocket shelters: paralyzed with shock, immobile. I started to move slowly toward them, and one horse stirred: she recognized me. She began to walk towards me, looking down. When I reached to pat her on the neck, the horse raised her low-bent head and looked me straight in the face. Her eyes were filled with tears - exactly like human's. "The two of us stood there, looking each other in the eye and crying. I was sobbing now not because I was hysterical; the fear was already gone. I just felt so sorry for that poor horse! After a while she no longer seemed dazed either, but tears trickled from her eyes, and I knew that she felt sorry for me."