The nation of Israel is home to about two million stray and feral cats, according to the newspaper Haaretz. This disproportionately large feline population is widely attributed the mild Middle Eastern climate, which enables the cats to have two or three heat cycles each year; and the human population density with the resulting easy access to garbage.
But some folks also say people who feed the street cats are also to blame. The debate about whether the cats should be fed is strident, passionate and occasionally even violent.
On one side are the animal care organizations and individuals who feed, spay and neuter street cats, usually at their own expense, because they are concerned for the cats’ welfare.On the other side are officials, including veterinarians working on behalf of local authorities, zoologists, and nature and parks authority staff, who believe wild animals are threatened by feral cats.
Many caretakers report strong antagonism to their work. B., who feeds a group of cats in Tel Aviv’s Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, says, “Not a day goes by when I’m not attacked” in some way.
Does the need to save cats at any price compensate for something? “Don’t play amateur psychologist,” B. says in response. “I’m sane. Believe me, I see a lot of insane people in this world of animals. There are people who do more than me.”
When B. talks about “people who do more than me,” she is referring to Fanny Zadok.
Zadok gets up every day at 4 a.m. to scatter cat food. In the course of her routine, which includes visiting 19 streets and buying 30 bags of food each month, she feeds no fewer than 1,500 cats.
“It’s my life versus the lives of the cats,” says Zadok. “I want to live, too. It’s hard for me to see all the horror. I work 18 hours a day for them. But if I stop they die, plain and simple. I can’t stand aside and not offer a hand.”
Zadok even took out a bank loan of NIS 100,000 ($28,000 US) to care for the cats. When her husband discovered this, he was aghast. “Who does such a thing?” he says. “She needs psychiatric help. She helps only the most helpless. Even at the expense of her own children.”
State officials used to spread poison in the streets to control the feral cat population. But after years of contentious debate and a prohibition against poisoning, the state’s veterinary service has given up the battle. It doesn’t have the budget to conduct spay/neuter campaigns and is not allowed to kill the animals.
Private citizens and nonprofits have stepped in to fill the void, adopting a trap-neuter-return campaign. But a recent report prepared by Let the Animals Live, Israel’s major animal rights organization, indicates that only a small percentage of feral cats are actually neutered and spayed, and over half of those who are, are operated on at the expense of individuals and nonprofits.
The cat feeders and the organizations that work with them are now trying to convince the government to embark on a comprehensive national neutering campaign, and organizing to stop an initiative by local councils to issue permits to cat feeders, which would require [the caretakers] to underwrite neutering and spaying themselves.
“It’s simply absurd,” claims Shaul Lapid, an activist in the Haifa branch of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “It’s inconceivable that people will need a permit in order to have compassion for cats. If the local authorities wanted to provide a suitable solution for the problem, they would subsidize the neutering and spaying, but instead they’re trying to pass their responsibility on to the feeders.”
Y. is a municipal veterinarian who claims that the rapid increase in the feral cat population is actually a result of the feeding and TNR campaigns.
“Any municipal veterinarian will tell you in private that he is simply wasting money on these neuterings,” he says. “There was a point when everyone believed that it would solve the problem. [But] now it’s being done only to placate the cat feeders, who have a strong lobby.
“The number of cats in a given habitat is determined by what the ‘traffic’ will bear,” Y. says.
Some people claim that the feeders’ need to care for the street cats is due to “injured child” syndrome.
Hannah Yitzhaki devotes all the time she has left, after finishing her shift as a clinical social worker, to cats. Yitzhaki feeds and cares for 100 cats on a daily basis, “but I always have food in the car, so I probably feed more.”
Yitzhaki attributes her love for animals first of all to her childhood. “I grew up in a ma’abara [transit camp]; we didn’t have toys, only animals, and they filled my world.”
Then “once, when in Yad Vashem [the Holocaust memorial museum], I saw a picture of a starving girl next to her dead brother, without shoes and socks, with skinny legs and cold sores,” Yitzhaki says. “I had a flash. I suddenly saw the legs of the cats I care for. I also work with Holocaust survivors, so apparently there’s a connection between the things. It’s not only feeding The important part is to take care of their medical needs, because their lives are short and full of danger. If I don’t help, afterward I’ll have strong guilt feelings that won’t go away.”
Veterinarian Dr. Ronen Winkler tied his own animal-related destiny to an experience indirectly connected to the Holocaust.
“In my youth I ‘adopted’ my parents’ neighbor Yehudit, a Holocaust survivor on whom Mengele did experiments [which left her sterile],” he explains. “I tried to help her rescue a cat and came to her apartment with her. There was a terrible smell, and there were 17 cats and two dogs. I helped her, I cleaned up, took care of things and simply was there. The animals were her entire world. She named one of them after her brother who had been killed; to the others she gave all kinds of names in Hungarian that reminded her of her childhood.”
“Cats have an amazing effect on human beings,” says Moshik Cohen, a youth counselor and animal rights activist from Jerusalem. “It’s unbelievable in what places you find empathy and love for cats — in families of criminals, in youth that have experienced abuse. It’s cross-cultural: I know Arab people who feed cats and ultra-Orthodox ones, and they’re all in contact; they give support and advice, they replace someone if he’s away. There are children in disadvantaged neighborhoods who abuse cats, and after I teach them how to approach them, to give them water, they make a sharp transition to the other side, of petting and taking responsibility. It’s as though the lightbulb went on. And developing empathy in them as such an age is critical for the health of our society.”
“There’s no question,” says Y., “the moment you neuter or spay a cat you greatly improve the life of that individual. But the feeders only see the good of the individual. An ecological system has to monitor the predators. And if it isn’t done in a natural way, let it be done artificially.”
Ironically, it turns out that an old cat that roams around the marina where he lives is Y.’s and that he’s been feeding her for years and even given her a name. “If it rains tonight and she doesn’t come to sleep with me,” he says, “I’ll be very worried about her. I don’t want anyone to kill Lily.”