Harnessing their compassion

An Israeli organization extends free veterinary and educational services to aid Palestinians with the animals that serve as their livelihood.

Lucey Fensom with donkey animal 521 (photo credit: Tova Saul)
Lucey Fensom with donkey animal 521
(photo credit: Tova Saul)
In the Bible, donkeys and mules are ridden by kings, prophets and judges, used as metaphors for either humble or wild people, and have specific laws pertaining to their care. Today, thousands of equines (donkeys, mules and horses), mostly with Arab owners, are used in Israel and the Palestinian territories to transport their masters, carry produce from the fields and to market, and for recreational riding.
Until recently most of these animals faced great hazards and, for varying reasons, never received professional veterinary care.
Often the owners increased their animal’s suffering by using “folk medicine,” which includes burning or cutting areas of the body. Many were abandoned, overworked, deliberately harmed, or injured in traffic accidents. Suffering in silence, they had no organization to rescue them.
That is, not until 2000, when Lucy Fensom, a soft-spoken British flight attendant became a savior for these animals. While volunteering at a Jerusalem animal shelter, she learned of the extensive abuse of equines in the region. She used her contacts in England to fund a donkey sanctuary called Safe Haven for Donkeys in the Holy Land (SHADH) near Netanya. There are presently 160 donkeys and several horses in her custody, with SHADH treating donkeys in Arab villages in Israel as well as in the West Bank.
A year ago, I arrived at SHADH to see a dark, skeletal horse being bathed by the staff. Fensom’s husband, Adi, explained that it had just been rescued from the Jericho Equestrian Club.
Originally established by PLO leader Yasser Arafat, the club has been in decline for lack of funding since his death. A French diplomat who had ridden this horse in the past was shocked to see its condition, and he called Fensom directly. Although Jericho is off limits to Israeli citizens, Fensom and her team were able to go to the club, rescue two horses, and send bales of hay for the rest.
At SHADH, donkeys are recovering from varying forms of abuse. Torture by burning is common. One donkey was used as an anti-Israel billboard, a large Star of David carved into its hindquarters.
Fensom’s original concept was to rescue donkeys in bad situations and let them enjoy their lives at the spacious sanctuary.
However, over the past 12 years, SHADH has morphed into a shining model of compassion reaching far beyond the grounds of the sanctuary.
Four “rest stations” have been established next to the towns of Kalkilya, Tulkarm, Bethlehem and Taiba, all in the West Bank.
Each station has free food and water for any passing equine, usually an overworked, underfed horse or donkey pulling a cart. At Kalkilya, SHADH provides two veterinarians, Jewish and Muslim, who share their caseload every day. (I was told that the Jewish vet is sought out more, due to his Western-style education.) A constant stream of horses and donkeys is brought to this free clinic, which serves 80 to 100 animals per day, thousands per year.
On a recent visit to the Kalkilya clinic, the place was abuzz. A Jewish vet and an intern in green scrubs were examining a thin and limping gray horse. The vet spoke in Hebrew to Abu Jad, whose job is to translate for the patients’ owners, and to supervise the rest stations. There were another five Arabs present, besides the owner, who were watching and listening with utmost fascination as the vet gently urged the owner to feed the horse more. All the while the owner nodded his head as Abu Jad translated.
SHADH is ever expanding its ambitious activities, trying to bring about a quiet revolution in the attitudes and behaviors of people towards their animals, and it is slowly accomplishing its goals. Last year it held a free two-day farrier (blacksmith) course to teach 17 farriers and farmers in Tulkarm about proper shoeing and foot care. Word quickly spread to nearby Nablus, where so many people clamored for the course that another was given for 18 farriers there.
The northern West Bank is too large for most equine owners to bring their animals to the Kalkilya vet clinic. SHADH therefore offers a roving mobile clinic that carries a vet, a farrier and basic medicine and equipment several times a week. This is virtually the only professional veterinary care for equines in the northern West Bank, and certainly the only free care.
Fensom travels to England several times a year for fund-raising events. Celebrities such as Des Lynam and Uri Geller have lent their support, and recently Princess Alexandra has become a patron.
“We hope very much to extend our work within the Palestinian sector – both to help the animals and work at trying to change people’s attitudes towards their animals,” says Fensom. “It can be done but it takes immense effort and infinite patience.”
The writer is a licensed Israel tour guide and stray animal rescuer.