Cat whispering in Haifa

On my visit to the shelter, I met a very happy young couple who were signing the adoption papers for a beautiful two-year old pure-bred dog with a sad history.

Cat whisperer Rona Hart (photo credit: SUSIE KATZ)
Cat whisperer Rona Hart
(photo credit: SUSIE KATZ)

When Rona Hart lived in London, she rescued a tiny kitten from the coal bin. She fed it with a dropper every two hours, so when she went to work she took it with her in a basket. On the train, the kitten started meowing and she took it out of the basket to stroke it. Typical of British animal lovers, all the passengers were enthusiastic about this tiny creature and gave Hart plenty of advice about its care.
Today, after a lifetime of rescuing wounded and abandoned cats, Hart volunteers in the shelter of the Haifa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Haifa Bay.
Hart was born in Llandudno and grew up in Colwyn Bay. Her passion for Israel grew during several visits here, once for leadership training at the Machon L’Madrichei Chutz La’Aretz (Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad) for young students from overseas, and during the Six Day War when she volunteered at Kibbutz Tel Yitzhak. In 1969, she settled in Jerusalem but for family reasons made extended visits to England where she worked for Jewish community organizations including the 35’s Campaign for Soviet Jewry, the British Board of Deputies and the British Aliyah Movement.
Finally in 2006, she settled for good in Haifa, where she cares for several cats who were injured or vulnerable and cannot live outside.
“I’ve always loved animals and I feel so sorry for those who have had a hard life,” she says.
In addition to the cats in her home, she has selected an open space a short distance from her home where families of cats eagerly await her appearance with food. She believes there is often a “matriarch” who keeps all the cat families in order. The cats become familiar with Hart, trust her and look for her.
Describing a strange case of telepathy, she relates: “The day before the (first) lockdown, which limited us to walking only 100 meters from home, the street cats sensed this and left their open feeding space, finding their way to my front gate where they waited for me to feed them.” They continued this daily trek until the lockdown was over. Since cat populations tend to grow, it is fortunate that Hart often finds good families to adopt them.
Explaining how she came to volunteer at the shelter, Hart says, “I had called them from time to time for advice and the staff were always very helpful. Just over a year ago the mayor, Dr. Einat Kalish-Rotem, held a meeting for cat lovers, those who regularly cared for stray and injured cats. More than 200 people attended and of course we hoped that the municipality would take on the responsibility of neutering stray cats.” It was at that meeting that Hart met the manager of the shelter, Shaul Lapid. Just this past month the municipality announced that they had procured a budget for the program.
So started her weekly visits from the Carmel to the bayside shelter. Far from the misconception that animals are kept in cages at these shelters, the cats and dogs have an airy spacious area to enjoy freedom.
“However, cats who are new to the shelter are often very frightened and suspicious and they try to hide,” says Hart.
At the side of the space is a series of “shelves” reaching up to the roof. Some of the cats hide on the top shelves and are reluctant to come down even for food. Hart sits quietly with some tasty snacks while the bolder more confident cats climb over her and happily accept the snacks. But her biggest achievement is when one of the more timid cats slowly progresses down the stack of shelves while she talks to them softly, finally when they sit on her lap and purr.
“The shelter is very dependent on volunteers,” says Lapid.
Apart from unpaid jobs such as administration and publicity and serving on the board, volunteers come in regularly to walk the dogs or care for the cats. Lapid has been volunteering at the shelter since he was a child, old enough to travel alone on a bus and as an adult was a member of the board. Initially he studied psychology, sociology and criminology, earning his master’s degree in vocational psychology.
“But then I decided to switch to my hobby,” says Lapid. “I changed my life to work with the animals I love and with dedicated volunteers.” Nevertheless the shelter is chronically short of money and a lot of effort goes into getting donations and legacies. There is a small income from neutering fees and adoptions for ultimately the aim is to find good homes for the animals. During the British Mandate, animal shelters were exempt from all municipal and other taxes, but with the first Knesset of the State of Israel, the exemption was canceled.
In 2004, the Knesset passed a law that the shelters would pay only one-third municipal tax, which totaled 9,000 shekels per year. But in 2017, the Haifa Municipality raised it considerably and after a struggle it was agreed that the municipality would give the shelter an annual grant to offset the tax. The Environment Protection Ministry grants approximately 5-10% of the shelter’s expenses, 120,000-250,000 shekels annually.
“We are in no way self-sufficient,” says Lapid. “In 2019. we had a deficit of 800,000 shekels.”
He says that although they depend so much on volunteers, they have to employ professionals for cleaning and maintenance and medical care, because the shelter must be kept scrupulously clean and disinfected.
“We maintain a clinic on site for first aid and for minor ailments, but for more serious wounds or illness we use a private vet,” he says. “We are, in fact ,considered stable among the 24 shelters in Israel.”
“There is an umbrella group of animal shelters in Israel but not all organizations join,” he says. “Each shelter has autonomy in their policies.”
While the public often fear that too many animals are euthanized in these shelters, Lapid says that they are very transparent about their principles. “We do everything possible to treat and save a wounded and abandoned animal,” he says. “Each case is individual and only if an animal is suffering and cannot be cured or treated in any way, then this is a last resort. We do not euthanize because of over-crowding or lack of adoptions.” A veteran volunteer, Alona Kfir, confirms this, saying that some animals have been there for 10 years because they were either not suitable for adoption or an adoption did not work out and the animal was returned. Kfir was introduced to the shelter when she received a scholarship at university, which obliged her to complete several hours volunteering each week.
“At first I was scared,” she says. “I expected to see pathetic unhappy animals waiting to be put to sleep.” But she soon fell in love with the place. “It was so clean and aesthetic and the animals were cared for so well. And I soon found out that only in extreme cases of injury or sickness when there was no hope of a cure or treatment were they euthanized.” When Kfir started working full-time, she spent weekends at the shelter. She is a member of the board and maintains the shelter’s Facebook page and website, takes photographs for publicity and also to introduce the animals to would-be adopters.
“It has a place in my heart,” says Kfir, who started her volunteering work walking the dogs. “The shelter is open every day for people to come and get to know the animals, but it takes more than a short visit to really understand them.” Kfir says that some animals feel so much at home at the shelter with their familiar carers that it takes time and patience to help them adjust to a new environment.
On my visit to the shelter, I met a very happy young couple who were signing the adoption papers for a beautiful two-year old pure-bred dog with a sad history. He had been run over and had broken his leg. The original owner did not want to pay the vet a fee for treating him and abandoned him at the clinic. Eventually he was moved to the shelter where his wounds were treated and he was looked after until he was ready for adoption. He sat by his new human companion very contentedly, and we can only hope that they all live happily ever after. 
The Haifa Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can be contacted at 972-48729696; website: www.haifa-spca.org.il; email: hspca@netvision.net.il; Opening hours: Sunday-Thursday 8:00 a.m.-2:00 p.m. Friday/Shabbat 8:00 a.m.-noon.