It all started with Fiona, a terrified, flea-infested blind poodle rescued from the parking lot of an auto-body shop in South Los Angeles in 2012.Fiona was not Eldad Hagar’s first filmed dog rescue – far from it – but the first one that went viral online, garnering 3.3 million views.
Hagar’s globally viral videos of his “extreme”animal rescues in the US have made his small nonprofit, Hope for Paws, among the most well-known of about 100 LA animal-rescue organizations. Individuals and other organizations call Hope for Paws to do rescues no one else will risk due to the danger of the situation or of the neighborhood.
Though Hagar operates a US charity, and speaks perfect Californian English, he was actually born and bred in Israel.
From 1981 to 1989, young Hagar and his family lived in the bucolic northern city of Zichron Ya’akov.
“We had a nice big house with lots of pets. We always took the leftovers from our plates outside to the stray cats. I would find injured tortoises, birds, kittens – actually, they somehow found me — and I took care of them,” Hagar tells ISRAEL21c. “Luckily I had a neighbor who was a veterinarian, and he was kind enough to guide me. That’s how I gained so much knowledge.”
Then the Hagars moved south to Holon and Eldad finished high school, studied computers and did his military service. Two years after his discharge, in 1998, he took off to see the United States.
Falling in love with LA, he stayed and found work in the computer field during the dot-com boom. He and his wife, Audrey, volunteered as foster parents for “the sickest, saddest” shelter dogs through an animal-rescue organization. Their book, Our Lives Have Gone to the Dogs, tells about more than 500 dogs they took in over eight years.
Hope for Paws
In 2008, they started Hope for Paws in order to take over responsibility for their foster dogs’ medical expenses. One day a friend told Hagar about a pregnant stray dog in gritty South Central LA. “That became my first street rescue,” says Hagar, who now has a volunteer staff of four.
“I started doing more and more street rescues and I would tell my friends about them. One friend said that if she didn’t know me she wouldn’t believe the crazy stories I was telling. That’s when I started taking a camera with me, mainly to show my friends and my parents in Israel. The first videos had horrible camera work until I learned how to do everything with one hand.”
As he spoke with ISRAEL21c via Skype, three-legged Jordan happily scampered across his lap. Hagar and several helpers recently extricated Jordan from a canal where he was thrown after having his leg cut off. Just a month after Hagar posted the video, it had some 2.3 million views on YouTube and thousands of shares on Facebook.
Hagar not only shoots all the videos but also does his own editing, because only he knows how to identify the right footage to include. “No editor could ever capture the moments I can, when the dog looks at me in only the way I remember.”
Each video ends with an appeal for a $5 donation. “I have over a million followers but I never ask for a donation; the videos do,” Hagar says.
“Most rescue organizations, whether in Israel or LA, have adoption events where they get donations from community, and it’s hard to raise funds. But I am very blessed because I can reach people all over the world. I’ve gotten donations from Japan, Australia, South America. There’s only so much I can do as a small organization, but if I can inspire others to take action that’s the value.”
The videos also raise awareness and show people what they can do to help animals in distress.
That first viral video of Fiona resulted in a flood of emails. “One of the most amazing emails was from a man in South Korea who wrote that the video touched a nerve he didn’t know he had. And this is a country where it’s acceptable to have a dog for dinner,” Hagar points out. “That was incredible.”
Eldad the donkey
A few years ago, while visiting his family in Israel, Hagar was driving in the Negev and happened upon a donkey near the roadway. The beast’s front legs had been hobbled with a rope that cut deep into his flesh. Hagar gently led the beast to a hidden spot in case the abusive owner returned. Then he called Zvika Tamuz, head of Israel’s Pegasus Society.
“On my previous visit a year before, I had met with Zvika at his donkey and horse refuge and gave him a donation. When I found the donkey, I Googled Zvika’s number and he dropped everything and drove two hours to the desert to help me.”
Tamuz brought the donkey to Pegasus, and named him Eldad.
On his annual visits to Israel, Hagar never takes a break from his calling. “There’s always an animal that needs help and I couldn’t just say, ‘Oh I’m on vacation.’ I can’t just assume someone else will help because someone else may not.”
Like all Mediterranean countries, Israel has lots of stray cats, and Hagar works with existing groups to trap, neuter and release hundreds of feral cats.
Last time he was in Israel he did a rescue with Yuval Mendelovich, who has been working for 14 years to save pit bulls and mastiffs exploited for dog fights in Arab villages.
Rescue work is full of hazards. Hagar has been bitten by frightened canines and threatened by drug dealers and gangs in the sketchy neighborhoods he and his staff enter to save suffering creatures.
Yet Hagar, named to the “mensch list” of the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles last year and interviewed often on TV, considers his biggest challenge not his safety but finding homes for every rescued dog. He insists that they not go to a kennel after discharge from the vet. “Dogs heal so much better in a calm home environment, physically and mentally.”
“I can’t change the world, but I can change the world of that animal,” says Hagar.
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