Canine castaways

More than 100,000 stray dogs die in Israel each year.

dog 88 (photo credit: )
dog 88
(photo credit: )
On the faded maroon sign, barely legible, are the words "The Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals." The letters have completely chipped off, and all that remains is their outline, bleached white by the sun. Behind the sign is a metal fence topped with barbed wire. Inside, the sound of barking fills the air, and the stench of feces is overwhelming.
  • A dog's life Welcome to the JSPCA animal shelter in the Atarot industrial zone, where at any given time hundreds of dogs spend their lives before getting sick, attacked by other animals or, in the worst cases, put to sleep. They arrive in bunches, some from families who abandoned them, others who grew up on the streets, and as puppies, thrown away by their mother's owners after an unwanted pregnancy. If they're lucky, they'll be adopted by new families - but for the one or two dogs that do get adopted every day, the shelter receives another five to 10 strays off the street, and the overcrowding often makes the situation unmanageable. The dogs live one or two to a cage, each of which opens up to a shared medium-sized yard. On one side of the compound are the older dogs; the ones who've been dumped by families are identifiable by their dejected looks and depressed demeanor. On the other side of the compound, sharing their own yard, are the younger dogs, jumping around and yelping with joy at the sight of new people. The puppies - of which there are 50 today - live inside a small room, half a dozen to a cage, and with their big brown eyes, furry little bodies and tiny paws are almost impossible to leave behind. It is most dangerous here for them because of the numerous diseases puppies can get before they are vaccinated, and because of their close quarters. "Dogs shouldn't even be living in a shelter," says shelter manager Eve Beili, a JSPCA board member. "Dogs are domesticated animals, they should live in a home, they're supposed to live with people. Shelters only exist because there's overpopulation. "If all we were talking about was a few families abandoning their dogs, we'd be able to find them new homes, but the numbers are so astronomical because every day we get in new litters of puppies." By 11 a.m., four dogs have already been brought in, including one who was hit by a car and a skinny Doberman Pinscher from Kfar Shmaryahu, who has a litter of dead puppies inside her womb and is very sick with pyometra. "This is why we tell everyone to spay their dogs," says Beili. "It's the only solution to the problem of so many stray dogs, and it prevents so many health problems later." Today, a spay clinic has been set up in one of the old rooms of the shelter. SpayIsrael, part of the SpayUSA organization, has sent a veterinarian and two assistants to spay the shelter's animals. Before being given to a new family, all the animals are spayed and vaccinated in-house. "We have to reach 70 percent spayed and neutered in this country to avoid this," says one assistant, motioning to the more than 400 dogs in cages at the shelter. "And it is possible. There are some areas in the US that have reached 80 percent spayed and neutered." "I've been to some shelters in the US," adds Beili, "and it's like a dream - there are no puppies in the shelters. They all have homes." The JSPCA shelter, like SpayIsrael, is completely funded by private donors. The shelter was started by the wives of British officers under the British Mandate of Palestine, and it hasn't undergone much change since. Once or twice a year the shelter receives a few thousand shekels from the Environmental Protection Ministry, but other than that, they pay taxes and survive on donations. Aside from dogs, the shelter also houses cats - but only abandoned house cats or kittens. It employs a full-time veterinarian as well as one caretaker whose job it is to feed the animals, clean the cages and maintain the facilities. A steady stream of devoted volunteers circulates through the shelter, helping out where needed, and sometimes just providing the human contact the dogs crave. In fact, dog expert Myrna Shiboleth, who runs a Canaani and Collie farm right outside Jerusalem, says dogs are the only animal that will always choose to be with a different species - humans - rather than their own kind. But because many of these dogs grow up in the shelter, they can sometimes become unadoptable, as they don't know how to walk on a leash and are often too old to train. Today is an especially bad day at the shelter, says Beili. "We have to put some dogs to sleep." It is a last resort for this animal rescue organization, but if the overcrowding gets to be too much, the dogs will start attacking each other. JUST A short drive away, tucked into the bottom of Har Hotzvim, putting unwanted dogs to sleep has become a weekly procedure. Here, at the municipality's pound, the primary concern is not just the welfare of the animals . "We have a responsibility to the public," says Dr. Zohar Dworkin, the city's chief veterinarian and head of veterinary services. "That's how we differ from [the shelter at] Atarot. We have a double responsibility, but of course, man comes before animal." To that end, the shelter not only holds dogs found abandoned on the street or those wounded in accidents, but also serves as a quarantine for dogs who bit or scratched someone or who are suspected of carrying rabies. Like the shelter at Atarot, the city pound also houses cats, along with an injured donkey and a couple of goats. At these brand new facilities, built just a year-and-a-half ago, the number of dogs is also much lower. Out of 80 outdoor cages, approximately 60 are filled. These cages, while newer than the ones at Atarot and equipped with heaters for the winter, have no adjoining yards, and so the animals remain inside 24 hours a day. The low numbers are maintained by the law, which states that the municipality must keep a dog for 10 days, and after that, if no one claims it, it can be put to sleep. "Our policy is different from Atarot, where they will keep dogs sometimes for a couple of years to try to adopt them out," explains Dworkin. "We believe the more turnover, the more dogs will get adopted. If you keep a dog in a cage for six months, it probably won't get adopted, and it will prevent other dogs from getting adopted." Every Wednesday, the dogs chosen by Dworkin and his staff are put to sleep. Like Beili, Dworkin believes the long-term solution to the problem of so many stray dogs is spaying them before they have the chance to have puppies, but adds that if more responsible people would adopt dogs, there would also be fewer roaming the streets. The adoption rate at the Har Hotzvim shelter is about 20%, he estimates, and the municipality advertises in the newspaper and on the Internet on a regular basis. Every other Friday, a selection of dogs from the Atarot shelter are brought to Rehov Emek Refaim for "Adoption Day," where the JSPCA also takes the opportunity to educate families about dogs, the need to spay and how to take care of them, so that an adopted dog doesn't end up on the street a few weeks later. "People mean well," says Beili, who has dogs of her own, "but we just had a couple in here a few weeks ago who adopted a dog, realized how much work it was and now don't want it anymore. Or people want their dog to be able to have puppies, and then they find homes for all the puppies, but they don't understand that they're taking homes away from puppies who are already alive, living in the shelter and waiting for homes. And this is no way for a dog to live." Between the two shelters, they receive some 2,000 stray dogs a year from the Jerusalem area alone, estimates Dworkin, but more than 100,000 animals die every year in Israel, adds Beili, because there aren't enough homes. "It's terrible, it's sad, it's heartbreaking," she says, admitting that at times it's even difficult for her to be at the shelter every day. "But if I'm not there, the animals will still be here. At least half of these dogs have grown up here dumped as puppies, they don't even know anything else, and until we can control the amount of puppies being born this will go on forever. Spaying is the only option, the only way to avoid this. One day... I hope." For more information, or to adopt a dog, please call: 054-770-0221.