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December 2002/January 2003
Compassionate Cat Rescue in Israel

By Liz Wassell


An animal rescuer for 18 years, I lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, from 1994 to 96, became a citizen, and have returned on regular visits since. Then, as now, the cat overpopulation problem and lack of resources remain the worst I have experienced. Besides setting up feeding stations and caretakers, rescuing kittens and trying to locate inexpensive spay/neuter services, I helped cats who’d been struck by vehicles and left to die, often in plain sight of passersby. I would call the Tel Aviv Society for the Protection of Animals (SPCA) and accompany the cat to the area’s only clinic in its last hours before being euthanized, the only available option.

There are an estimated three million stray cats living among 6.6 million people in Israel in an area about the size of New Jersey. Israelis own mostly dogs and sometimes cats as pets, but traditionally don’t spay or neuter them. Because there are no specific words for this process, the Hebrew term for “castration” (l’Seres) is typically used to refer to neutering. Street animals are all but invisible. I’ve often heard, “They’ll manage—they’re out in nature.”

Israeli rescue organizations aggressively compete against each other for power, money, and recognition in the public eye. For example, shelters may claim to employ a “no-kill” policy for donations, but will quietly euthanize cats, or spay/neuter and then abandon strays without arranging for lifetime care. And, with its lackadaisical fact-checking, the Israeli press is often used to perpetuate slander—reporters print whatever they are told about a rescue organization’s euthanasia policy, for instance, without following up on the case.

Since allotted government budgets are insufficient, donations are sought in the private sector. Precious resources are further squandered on lawsuits between groups, sometimes only resolved in the Israeli higher courts. The Israeli Supreme Court is still to determine a case from October 2002, for example, to determine whether or not rescuer Na’ama Bello is fit to administer euthanasia to injured or dying street cats who are otherwise without options.

Na’ama’s compassion for neglected and dying animals reflects her motto: “It’s all about the cats.” She feeds and waters strays, as many rescuers do. She also has the honesty to mercifully put down many desperately injured animals without hope of recovery, attracting a vicious stream of hostile publicity. Na’ama ultimately lost her shelter and her apartment in order to pay her legal bills, but continues her rescue work.

The tenth-century Perek Shira, or “Book of Song,” a Jewish collection of verses found throughout the Bible, teaches that within each of the earth’s creatures is a spiritual, vibrational essence, adding to the full chorus of song that binds the world together. Remembering our interdependence with all Nature as we hear each creature’s voice is the root of compassionate awareness. Israeli children, then, must first learn to recognize animals as fellow beings in order to empathize with them. Says Nina Natelson of the 18-year-old U.S. based nonprofit organization Chai (“Life”), whose Israeli sister charity of one year is HaKol Chai (“All Life”): “Many Israeli children can’t tell the difference between a bench, a lamppost or a cat. To them, none have feelings.” Chai/HaKol Chai’s educational agenda begins here, in sensitizing children to the feelings and needs of the creatures in their shared world.

In Israel, HaKol Chai’s two-pronged mission sets it apart from cat rescue efforts found anywhere else. The group’s care standards are the strictest in the country, with special attention given to stray cats. In October 2002 HaKol Chai’s new, customized spay/neuter van was driven by request to its first model program in the municipality of Rishon LeZion, for several months of spay/neuter and rabies vaccinations for both homed and stray cats trapped by volunteers. Having accepted HaKol Chai’s guidelines for this project, each household in Rishon received pamphlets in the mail; a presentation, video, posters and newsletter were offered in each junior high school classroom; and local teens conducted surveys before the mobile clinic arrived, and feeding stations for afterward. Other municipalities have asked to follow.

All of Chai/HaKol Chai’s animal care programs are rooted in the commitment to educating young Israelis about the value of all life, from the classroom to community volunteering. Chai and Israel’s Ministry of Education have collaborated on humane education projects since 1985, co-sponsoring a conference for teachers and school psychology counselors on the link between violence toward animals and people, and humane education seminars for teachers. This educational approach largely follows that of Maine’s International Institute for Humane Education (

Chai/HaKol Chai’s after-school “Living Together” program teaches Israeli and Arab children empathy and respect for all living creatures. Twice a month Arab children from Jaffa and Israeli children from North Tel Aviv were bused to the SPCA to learn empathy and tolerance for the plight of animals and ultimately for each other via mask-making projects, role-playing, and films. “Living Together” has been a great success; it was in operation until the second Intifada, when Israeli mothers feared sending their children to Jaffa. Although it is currently not feasible for the children to meet, there is an overwhelming demand for the work to resume, with Chai/HaKol Chai creating special educational materials for Arab schools, with the help of the program’s Arab teacher.

Chai/HaKol Chai is fundraising for Tel Aviv’s new Isaac Bashevis Singer Center for Humane Education, named for the famed writer and animal lover, who was a member of Chai’s advisory board until his death. The Center’s library, space for exhibits, research, speakers and teacher training and children’s programs such as “Living Together” will share the SPCA’s grounds in Tel Aviv’s Abu Kabir district.

Chai/HaKol Chai’s future projects are evolving quickly. The Ministry of Education has just asked that it expand its “model communities” educational program nationwide, after testing it in Rishon. Also in development is a humane education curriculum for Jewish schools in the U.S. Other projects range from establishing a horse/donkey sanctuary, to offering training in animal shelter management, to sponsoring alternatives for animal testing.

Overall, Chai/HaKol Chai’s broad, lasting agenda is available for all of Israel’s residents, nurturing humane—and Jewish—values, one community at a time.

To find out how to volunteer or to donate much-needed funds, contact Chai at: (703) 658-9650, Visit, for dates of upcoming speaking engagements in NYC. To contact HaKol Chai, email; to reach Na’ama Bello, call (011) 972-3 902-6295 or email


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