Wildlife ER

Not just for the birds, but for the people, too.

veterinary 88 (photo credit: )
veterinary 88
(photo credit: )
When it comes to Israel's wildlife, one could paraphrase an old saying - "with great variety comes great responsibility." The country is home to hundreds of species of unique animals, to say nothing of the more than 500 million birds that either live here or fly over during their migratory periods. From ibexes to gazelles to hyraxes to hoopoes to Arabian babblers, this wide variety of wildlife is one of the country's greatest marks of pride. We've got the variety - but the responsibility sometimes goes wanting. Man and nature must coexist in this small and crowded country, where the needs and aspirations of humans often clash with the delicate balance required by nature. Hikers tramp through deserts and wadis where wild animals have their lairs; farmers and shepherds wrestle with forest foragers seeking their next meal; and cars ply the roads in national forests, packed with residents of the cramped cities seeking a day out in nature. There's bound to be some conflict - and the victims are often the animals or birds caught "in the headlights" of the oncoming traffic. And when those creatures are injured by that oncoming car, or hurt after being caught in a trap laid by hunters or farmers trying to ward off predators, they may find themselves in Israel's first "ER for animals" - the Leteva Nolad Center, a treatment and care facility for wildlife, a joint project of the National Parks Authority and the Ramat Gan Safari. The director of the center, Dr. Igal Horowitz, says that Israel needs a facility like this to preserve not just our natural resources, but our international standing among other nations - especially when it comes to birds. "There are many species of birds not native to Israel that migrate over the country, stopping off to rest on their travels. Among these birds are many rare and endangered species which have protected status in their native lands - and protecting and caring for them is a matter not just of environmental preservation, but international statecraft." Leteva Nolad, which has locations in the Safari and the Tel Afek National Park near Petah Tikva, treats well over 2,000 creatures each year in facilities that can only be called "shoestring." Most of the "patients" come from natural parks or wildlife reserves; often they were injured when hit by a car or trying to outrun a vehicle, but a fair number were injured by poachers illegally hunting in the parks, as well as careless campers who leave behind items that are poisonous to animals and birds. The creatures are usually found by park employees, although hikers have brought some in on their own as well. And although the facility is strapped for space and funds, Horowitz says he never turns away a needy animal. The needs are many; because of the proximity of open spaces to settled areas, there are more "clashes" between nature and man, with nature usually losing the battle for space or resources. "There are stupid people, like factory owners who pollute wadis or forests, without consideration for the wildlife that will probably get hurt by their waste," says Horowitz. "Then there are the mean people, who place damaging traps to catch predators such as wolves, but end up injuring or killing animals that aren't bothering their fields or flocks, as well as hunters illegally poaching in nature reserves. And, there are the 'natural' causes, where animals get caught up in the infrastructure of man's world - such as electrical wires or telephone poles." Many of the animals and birds in Horowitz's facility are discovered by park workers or hikers with broken limbs or wings, while others are victims of poisoning - sometimes ingesting the poison directly, and sometimes having eaten another creature that had been poisoned. The facility's staff does what it can; poison victims are given antidotes, when available, and nursed back to health, while creatures with injuries may undergo surgery, with wounds treated, bones set - and, sometimes, even fitted with prosthetics. Creatures are usually brought to the Tel Afek site, which has quarantine facilities, first to make sure that whatever they have is not contagious. Major surgery is often performed there, and animals are then brought to the Safari site to recuperate. The creatures are put in a calm, nonstressful environment where they can get the required rest and relaxation - sometimes they are laid up for months. And in some cases, the facility holds the creature even after it has recuperated, to make sure it can meet up with the proper traveling companions: "We have had several situations where ducks or other birds were treated during the fall migration and didn't recover until after their fellow birds had already gone back home - so we hold the birds until the next migration, to ensure that they can fly with their own kind," Horowitz says. WHILE ANIMALS can be treated for a lot less money than humans, there are still many costs involved, Horowitz says. "The average cost of treatment for animals and birds in our facility comes out to about NIS 1,000, not including fixed costs such as salaries, utilities, etc. Costs depend on the extent of treatment and length of stay, plus the amount of rehabilitative care each creature needs - so a deer, for example, is usually more expensive to treat than an eagle," he says. The government provides some funding, as does the Safari, with the rest coming from private donations. But it isn't enough - by far. "I am the only full time vet here, and I have one other vet working a one-third shift to help me out," Horowitz says. "We also have one full-time and one half-time nurse - and that's it. The rest of the help is provided by several National Service recruits, and volunteers." It's not just the staff that's modest, the place itself consists of a couple of old caravans and a corrugated tin henhouse. Altogether, it's far too small - and the staff far too few - for the facility to provide the kind of treatment Horowitz would like to see. "We have approached Knesset members, and while some sympathize with us, we haven't found any willing to take us on as a pet project," he says. And as for private donations - well, it's hard for a hospital for injured animals to compete with people who don't have enough to eat, or "real" hospitals, where humans go to get better. But those who dismiss Leteva Nolad because it "just deals with animals" instead of "important" problems have got it all wrong, says Horowitz. The facility provides a number of important and even critical services - some that even affect the country's international standing. For example, he says, "there are fewer than 500 pairs of eastern imperial eagles in the world today - and the majority of them fly from Europe over Israel to and from their winter nesting areas in Africa. What would happen if one of these eagles were shot by a hunter over the skies of Israel?" Considering the myth and history of the imperial eagle and the huge resources that several European countries have put into preventing their extinction, the diplomatic - and even economic - consequences of such an international incident could be significant. Especially if a facility like Leteva Nolad did not exist to nurse the bird back to health. But, beyond taking care of injured creatures, Horowitz sees Leteva Nolad as an educational center. "We bring in many school groups to our facility to impress upon them the consequences of ignoring the needs of nature," he says, and kids get the message loudly and clearly when they see an ibex walking around on a wooden leg or a bird with its wing in a cast. "When these kids go on a camping trip or hike with their parents, they will effectively 'supervise' their parents to ensure that no dangerous objects are left behind, or that they drive their 4x4 vehicles in a safe manner," he says. Like the canary in the coal mine, an injured forest animal or bird can also be the harbinger of a greater problem - such as major undetected pollution spewing from factories or local authorities. "When we examine a poisoned creature, we report our findings to the Environment Ministry, which then searches for the source of the poison. Very often we have helped uncover major pollution sources through the treatment we provide," Horowitz says, adding that he has provided written expert opinions in numerous cases brought by the state against large companies, forcing them to curb their pollution activity or reengineer facilities or infrastructure that are damaging to the environment. Leteva Nolad is not the only animal and bird rehabilitative center in the world - there are several large ones in the US and Europe. But, Horowitz says, it is perhaps the only one not attached to a university, which means that it is in the business of protecting the environment, not necessarily the interests of those paying the bills, "which don't always coincide with the needs of nature." And while Leteva Nolad is far from being the largest facility of its kind, it has perhaps more experience treating a wider range of exotic animals and birds than any other. "Israel is such a major conduit for birds, and because of its varied climate and topography, has a much wider variety of animals living in proximity to each other and to humans than in most other countries," Horowitz says. As such, the facility is also invaluable as a research center, and Horowitz and his staff have already made significant findings on a number of important issues that have helped environment services around the world, such as determining the ideal level of antidotes for poisoned birds. And all that, with just a tiny staff and minuscule infrastructure. "Imagine how much more we could do with a proper budget, staff and facility," Horowitz laments. Indeed, Leteva Nolad's importance goes beyond Israel's national interest - it's a project the international community benefits from, as well. "What we really need is an angel," Dr. Horowitz says, "someone who understands the issues we deal with and has a half million dollars or so to spare." n