TEL AVIV (Aug. 29)
“You wouldn’t leave behind your kids, would you?” asks Merav Barlev, director of Hakol Chai, an animal-rescue group in Tel Aviv. Barlev is coordinating the relocation of pets left behind after the evacuation of the Gaza Strip, her emergency mobile unit racing against the clock to any animals left behind — abandoned, escaped or stray — before the Israel Defense Forces locks the gates to empty Jewish settlements.
Equipped with operating facilities and medicine, the mobile unit first was on the scene Aug. 19 as the dust began to settle from the evacuation of homes in the Morag settlement.
Calls from the Agriculture Ministry and Israel Defense Forces came to Hakol Chai and Zar be L’chaim — the Israeli equivalent of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ISPCA — urging the groups to help collect frightened pets left behind.
In no time, a small caravan of animal crusaders, led by the mobile unit carrying volunteers, veterinarians and animal workers, were combing settlements like Gan-Or, Kfar Darom and Neveh Dekalim. They found dogs inside homes about to be demolished, as though waiting for their owners to return; pets found tied to trees with notes; and pets left without food and water, caged in the sweltering heat.
The team, which drives to the Gaza Strip almost daily, has had full cooperation and support from the IDF. Many soldiers have been found feeding stray animals, sustaining dogs, cats and goats with their own sandwiches and canned meat until help can arrive.
By the beginning of this week, the team had picked up 120 animals, including cats, dogs, ducks, lizards and parakeets.
All the animals have been shuttled to Tel Aviv, where they wait in the ISPCA shelter to pass quarantine, and then be reunited with their original owners or be adopted.
Many of the 27 dogs waiting in cages, tied to short leashes or pacing the large green holding tank, have been given new names, though they have identifying chips that reveal their real names.
Shelly, a young Siberian husky mix, comes with a cell-phone number leading to her owners, but the number is no longer in service and Shelly’s future is in limbo. Some celebrities, such as children’s TV actress Chani Nachmias, have offered to adopt Shelly if the dog’s owner isn’t found.
Tali Lavie, a lobbyist for Hakol Chai who works to impact animal-related legislation in the Knesset, says Israelis believe the pets are brave “disengagement dogs,” a reference for the withdrawal’s formal name as the “disengagement plan.” But Lavie just wants to see them placed in good homes as soon as possible.
Last week, just minutes before a house was to be razed in Neveh Dekalim, Lior Bury, an IDF filmmaker, discovered an 80-year-old man inside, with an old female dog.
“The two were sitting in the salon,” says ISPCA spokesman Gadi Vitner, recounting a phone call he received from Bury. “Lior said to me, ‘Please Gadi, find the best family for her.’ “
Vitner promised not to let anything happen to the dog, whom he estimates is about 12 years old.
“All these animals, these are the real victims of disengagement,” Vitner declares, rummaging around for keys to unlock quarantined cats as he tells the tale of a kitten adopted by Andrea Crosta, an Italian businessman who divides his time between Israel and Europe.
Crosta last week volunteered with the mobile unit, which generally makes runs around the country spaying and neutering cats and dogs.
“It was great experience as a non-Jew to see what was happening in Gush Katif,” Crosta told JTA by telephone. “The social aspect especially, being in this strange little spot of land the whole world is talking about. We could see hundreds of abandoned homes and Palestinians living like people from generations ago, and beside all this was the mobile unit like a little Noah’s Ark where all the animals were huddled together — dogs, cats and chickens.”
Today Costa is at home with the kitten he has named Luce, Italian for light.
“I didn’t want the name of the place where I found her — the place had negative energy — so I named her something that represents hope instead,” he says.
Why so many pets were left behind puzzles Vitner and Lavie.
“The settlers were told weeks before the disengagement that organizations like the ISPCA would provide temporary shelter while the land transfer was going on,” Vitner says. “But not one person called us before the pullout had begun.”
“I think the people in Gaza didn’t believe the disengagement would actually happen,” Lavie adds.
In some cases, she says, panicked animals escaped as families were being evacuated, and were impossible to catch.
Hakol Chai and the ISPCA are busy collecting the last remaining pets. It’s still unclear who will fund what some are calling “Operation Noah.”
“Let’s just save the animals first,” director Barlev says, “and talk about money later.”
Barlev doesn’t entertain the idea that some animals will be left behind.
“We’re just going to get them all out,” she says, “instead of finding out what will happen to them later.”
Donations to Hakol Chai can be made through the U.S. office at (703) 658-9650.