While the government and the military are focusing on the most efficient ways to evacuate people in the disengagement operation, concerned volunteers have been working to find new homes for the four-legged residents of settlements in northern Samaria in the West Bank and Gush Katif in Gaza.
The farm animals and family pets were easy to take care of – in most cases, these animals are being moved along with their owners to new homes within the Green Line. Zoo animals have already been taken care of. Several weeks before the set date for disengagement animals from the petting zoo at Neve Dekelim in Gush Katif were carefully transferred to their new home in an operation that brought heavily sedated gazelles, ostriches, sheep, donkeys and hyraxes to the Lachish Park in Ashdod.
Now, in the final days of the countdown to disengagement, animal rights activists, with the help of volunteer veterinarians, and some residents of the settlements have launched a massive operation to save the stray cats and dogs.
“We learned the bitter lesson from Yamit,” explains animal rights activist Revital Wreskin, referring to the Sinai settlement evacuated in 1982. “Many pets and stray animals were left behind in the desert heat without food or water – only to die of thirst. We are determined not to let that happen again,” says Wreskin a spokesperson for the Association of Cats in Israel.
Most of the stray animals were either fed regularly by settlers or rely on garbage to survive. But once the settlers leave, the animals’ food and water sources will disappear. Even if Palestinians eventually move into the evacuated settlements, it will be too late for the stray animals that can’t survive weeks in scorching heat without food or water.
To prevent that from happening, Wreskin along with a team of volunteers, began rounding up stray animals from settlements, and bringing food to the remaining ones, as residents began to leave.
Last week, their first “rescue operation” took place in the settlements of Ganim and Kadim in northern Samaria last week. As the residents had begun to move out volunteers had left food with one of the remaining settlers who undertook to feed them until her own evacuation and some former residents returned to Ganim daily to feed the animals, coming from their new homes in Afula and other cities.
On Wednesday and Thursday, the volunteers came to Ganim and the neighboring settlements and picked up approximately 100 cats, placing them in metal cages for transfer to a shelter in Hadera. Some were strays, others belonged to settlers who will not be able to keep as many cats as they had in their settlement – many are downsizing dramatically from spacious houses to apartments and simply won’t have the room.
The volunteers worked as efficiently to collect the animals, take them to be spayed and neutered by volunteer veterinarians. “Everyone was amazing and highly motivated,” said Shelly Gluzman, chairperson of NOAH, the umbrella organization of animal rights groups in Israel.
“Originally we planned to bring dozens of volunteers to round up all 150 to 200 stray animals in Kadim and Ganim,” noted Wreskin. “But since the army closed the areas (to non-residents) we can bring only five volunteers at a time. So we will be leaving food behind in case we can’t evacuate all the animals on time. We have even spoken to soldiers who agreed to look out for the animals, and let them have leftover food from the base.”
Once the evacuation of settlers is complete, a large number of volunteers will round up the remaining animals, and bring them to the clinics of veterinarians who have volunteered to vaccinate and spay them.
Michal Bronstein was moved and excited to see the volunteers as they began their operation last week – placing cages with food inside them that trap the animals as they step inside in various parts of the settlement.
A resident of Ganim, she has relocated to Afula, but continues to return to her old home to take care of her belongings – and the cats.
“For me, the biggest trauma of the disengagement, honestly, has been worrying about the cats,” she said. “I have four cats of my own that live in the house with me, and I regularly feed and take care of 20 strays. And it’s been even harder for me than dealing with moving and leaving my home and my community – imagining a terrible fate for all of these cats.”
She says it has meant a great deal to her knowing that there are volunteers committed to saving the creatures she has become attached to over the years.
Getting all of the living creatures out of Gush Katif will prove more of a challenge.
“We think there are about 800 to 1000 stray cats in Gush Katif alone,” says veterinarian Dr. Moshe Salmovitz, who in a previous government-supported operation unconnected with the disengagement – rounded up and treated 15,000 street cats around the country. “We have the experience, ability and willingness to do this – largely because we don’t want to see another tragedy like that of Yamit.”
If they are granted access, the volunteers want to go into the evacuated settlements after they are completely cleared to rescue any remaining strays.
The problem is finding a place to take them. Now that the 100 cats from the two settlements in Samaria were transferred to a shelter in Hadera – and the shelter is full, leaving no place for the approximately 1,000 cats and 70 dogs the volunteer organization expect to find in Gush Katif.
Wreskin estimates that some 500,000 NIS is needed to rescue all the stray animals – mainly cats and a few dogs – in the evacuated settlements. The money is not need for manpower – it is an all-volunteer operation – but for cages and suitable shelter.
“We have the land for the shelters, but we need a donation to fence off this new area and set up some infrastructure,” noted Gluzman, the umbrella organization of animal rights groups in Israel. “These animals are not domesticated, but on the other hand they will die if they aren’t cared for in some shelter.”
The animal welfare groups have been meeting with representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Environment Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, but have, thus far, been unsuccessful in obtaining the money.
They are calling on the public to apply pressure on the government to provide funding for their solution.
They are also urging the public to consider adopting pets currently in the shelters in order to make as much space as possible available for the new arrivals.
In the meantime, they are calling on the soldiers who move into the settlement areas during the evacuation to put out food and water for the strays, so if there are delays in the process of getting them out, they do not starve to death.