YOKNE'AM, Israel (Aug. 15)
When tens of thousands of Israelis fled their homes as Hezbollah rockets began raining down on northern Israel, they left behind not only hastily locked-up houses but, in many cases, their pets. After days and weeks of being left to fend for themselves, many of the animals were found starving and dehydrated in the streets of northern towns and cities. Estimates put the number of animals in distress at about 8,000.
Three dogs were killed after a rocket hit the house in Kiryat Shmona where their owner had tied them up and left them. Some dogs were found wounded, their bodies riddled with shrapnel.
Many others, terrified by the sound of rocket fire and artillery blasts, fled their homes and began living on the streets.
Soon after the fighting began, Hakol Chai, an Israeli animal welfare group, began sending volunteers to feed and water animals and rescue those in need of medical attention. Yadin Elam, the organization’s director, finds it hard to believe so many pets were left behind.
The owners “probably thought it wouldn’t take so long, thinking, ‘We’ll leave food for our pets.’ Some of them called us,” Elam said. “I have some issues with those people, but they’re not the same as people who didn’t do anything. Some even chained their dogs in the yard.”
Largely supported by donations from American Jews, Hakol Chai sent 12 tons of pet food, hundreds of water bowls, medicine and other supplies to the North during Israel’s monthlong war with Hezbollah.
Risking Katyusha fire, volunteers scattered at night into the streets of cities like Kiryat Shmona, Nahariya and Haifa looking for animals that needed medical help, and putting food and water in the streets for the others.
Noam Vardi, Hakol Chai’s volunteer coordinator, started the job two weeks before the war began. He wasn’t sure how he would find volunteers, but when the war started he was flooded with calls from people anxious to help.
The first night, instead of finding cats to feed in the town of Ma’alot, volunteers were overwhelmed by the stench of death: Many cats already had died.
Since that night, Vardi and his volunteers rescued countless animals by putting out food and water and finding foster homes for others. Many of the cats were street cats that had lived off residents’ handouts and garbage. With the locals no longer there, their situation turned desperate, Vardi said.
Vardi tells the story of two large, emaciated dogs his team found during one of their night rescue tours. Their owner had left food and water for a few days, but had chained the dogs on leashes so short that the food was just out of reach.
The dogs were brought to a shelter in the center of the country, as was another dog found with internal injuries after he tried to make his way into a bomb shelter. Instead of being brought to safety, he was attacked by the people in the shelter, Elam said.
Meytal Nuriel, a 23-year-old student from Kiryat Shmona, made sure a neighbor took care of her cat when she left for central Israel. Last week she decided she wanted to collect him, but was too scared to do it herself.
She read about Hakol Chai online, and had volunteers pick up the cat and bring him to her.
“If I weren’t so scared, I would have gone myself to help them,” she said. “They’re doing something really important — without them, many animals would starve.”
On one of Hakol Chai’s patrols, a collection of hungry animals was discovered in a yard — three dogs, eight puppies, pigeons and rabbits crowded inside small cages alongside 20 chickens, parrots, and numerous cats. Foster homes are being found for the animals.
Farm animals also were affected by the fighting. Farmers say cows are producing less milk because of the stress. Some 20 cows and calves were killed by rocket fire on Kibbutz Amir, near Kiryat Shmona, Hakol Chai officials said.
On Sunday night, just before the U.N. cease-fire went into effect, volunteers gathered in the town of Yokne’am and debated whether or not to go to Kiryat Shmona, where they had planned to distribute food and water.
Some returned to the center of the country, but two others — including a volunteer who had traveled from the United States to help with the rescue effort — headed north.
Noa Ginzburg, 25, decided to volunteer.
“It’s unthinkable that people would leave their animals behind,” she said.
Donations to Hakol Chai relief efforts can be made through www.chai-online.org, or can be mailed to Hakol Chai, POB 51858, Tel Aviv 67214, or in the U.S., to CHAI, POB 3341, Alexandria, VA 22302, USA.