An Eastern Orthodox Tale from Jerusalem

We have just received this email from a young Canadian man who first contact us, declaring that he was studying Orthodoxy and pleased to see that there is an Orthodox charity trying to educate Orthodox on various aspects of the animal suffering theme. At one point he had reservations and we are pleased that our mission played a small part in his continuing with his studies. He is now Orthodox and visiting Jerusalem. Here he describes a familiar story to many across the globe, who cooperate with God by working to reduce the suffering of animals. I briefly touched upon the subject of neutering in my presentation at the Halki Summit 111 and this story describes why their is a need to make it clear, through our priests, that the Orthodox Church does not prohibit the neutering of animals. This position aligns with all Animal Protection groups who teach that this is the only way of humanely dealing with the intransigent problem of over-population of cats and dogs. Here is his recent experience:

I have been in Jerusalem about a month, visiting, and during that time, seeing various religious sites, with a friend, Vladimir. During that time I met Tova Saul, a veteran cat rescuer who has been doing this for 40 years in the Old City of Jerusalem. There is a serious cat overpopulation problem in Jerusalem and all of Israel and the Mediterranean region, resulting in about 200,000 feral cats in this city alone. You see the cats everywhere. They have become a regular fixture of the city – but there is a great deal of suffering they experience that we don’t see: most of the kittens die, in cat nests in bushes and alleyways, soon after birth.

Sadly, most people here are indifferent to the fate of animals – which is largely true everywhere, but in this place it includes an indifference to cats as well as other species. And I am told there are many feral dogs in the country, outside of town. Tova is the only person I know of here who goes out to trap-spay-release them. She seems to be well-known internationally for her good work, as this National Geographic video illustrates:  and this article and this BBC video:

There appears to be little in the way of government support for this, and she and a handful of other rescuers in this country do this work as volunteers. Even working full-time they cannot keep up with the problem. See attached chart to see how 12 cats can produce 2 million within 8 years – and the only reason the world is not totally overrun with cat is that most kittens die a slow and cruel death. Cat rescuers who do trap-spay/neuter-release are trying to prevent that needless suffering. If Tova spays one cat it prevents the suffering of hundreds, if not thousands, in time.

Human beings domesticated cats about 5,000 years ago, and thus it is our moral responsibility to mitigate their suffering however we can. Humane population control is the best way. Adoption is a secondary measure but doesn’t begin to solve it. Tova manages to save many kittens and find adoptive homes for them, mostly in Tel-Aviv, with volunteer help from a couple of women, Tali and Svetlana. She has a website with details about how one can donate through PayPal to her work.  I would much rather give to this than to a charity where most of the money goes to overhead and large salaries. I know that 100% of the money for this goes to animal welfare and rescue efforts.

She buys food and sees that they obtain medical care with this money. She also has a car that she uses and from the looks and sound of it, it’s in need of a lot of mechanical work. Without it should not get to the vet to have them fixed. Some good people donated funds for an electric cart for her to use as well, to move traps around in, in the alleyways.

She applies medicine to their eyes to prevent blindness (eye infections in kittens are common), and takes them to the vet, and nurses them back to health, to where they are adoptable. And there is the non-stop trap-spay-release work.

Here is her latest video of rescue efforts for kittens:    In the video you can see that the Old City is a labyrinth of narrow alleys. It has been around for about 3,000 years and is composed of residences, shops and markets, synaogogues, mosques, and churches.

Here is another video, I took, of Tova explaining her cat rescue work and video to two Dutch cat rescuers who come here regularly to take cats back there to be adopted:  There are more videos on her website.

The entire Mediterranean has a cat overpopulation problem, due to the warm weather year-round. Hindering the problem is not just widespread indifference but also religious and the cultural bias of people who think we ought not to interfere with animals’ reproduction. And apparently lack of funding and incompetence on the part of the government in dealing with the issue (see

From the article: “chairman of the animal rights caucus at the Knesset”, Itzik Shmuli, points an accusing finger at the Agriculture Ministry. “The current policy is simply a criminal policy, creating a situation in which the main agency that is supposed to be eradicating animal distress is directly causing it,” he said. “When instead of supporting neutering programs, they choose the approach of ignoring [the problem] or proposing crazy suggestions such as flying cats abroad, they are just making the crisis worse  and increasing the suffering of the animals.”

The Minister of Agriculture is indifferent because the general populace is indifferent, so ultimately that change must come from a groundswell of concern – and I would argue that religion ought to be an instrumental force in that. If it is not, then religious authorities are failing to use it properly for the good of the world, contrary to many of the teachings of these religions.

There is a fear of animals among many Orthodox Jews and Muslims that results in their rejection fo the idea of animals as pets. A cultural and religious bias here is taught at an early age. Children are taught to avoid animals, going against their natural instinct to be curious about them, and befriend them. Of course part of it is that many people here eat animals – sheep, goats, cows, chicken (but not pigs) — and all these animals suffering horrendously their whole lives in factory farms and during live transport and slaughter – just like everywhere else on this planet – except that some say that kosher and halal slaughter is more cruel as the animals are fully conscious during it, in contrast to being stunned by an air-compressed bolt.

In Tel-Aviv – a largely secular city – there is now a growing vegan movement, illustrating the fact that where religion has failed secular rights ethics seem to have succeeded – at least in part.

A lot of animals must suffer heat stress during livet transport as it is so hot here: there is a “Stop Live Transport” protest group in Tel-Aviv. They did this when the Eid festival happened, at the end of Ramadan, when millions of sheeps and goats were transported on ships from Australia in terrible conditions, with many dying en route.

It is not just in this region: I saw the same cultural bias in eastern Europe, resulting in packs of feral dogs running loose, and no effort to help them except from a handful of women operating as volunteers. What money the government allocated for the dog shelter ended up being stolen there by officials and the dogs were starving to death in the shelters, in the most abysmal conditions. The women came and raised money to feed them and spay/neuter them and to find homes for them in the EU – though most were not saved and the needless suffering there continues, simply because there are too many and not enough people who care. It’s the same all over third world countries as well. It’s only in the West that dogs and cats seem to find favour, but even there many or most just end up in high-kill shelters who inject or gas them to death, to keep numbers down.

Lack of concern for animals goes against the grain of a child’s natural curiosity and concern for them, so a lot of Tova’s work is focused on teaching young children to be concerned for them. She wants to devote more of her energies to education at this point, but she needs help. I can envisage a program where young adults go out with her to help and that way learn from her how to trap and care for cats.

I have been out with Tova on three occasions late at night to trap cats in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City (it is divided into Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and Armenian Quarters). On just those three nights she trapped a dozen female cats and the were all spayed at the vet the next day – and this in the long run will prevent tens of thousands of kittens dying of disease, starvation, injury, and flea bites – just from three nights’ work. Tova goes out alone in the middle of the night to do this, in sometimes completely dark alleyways where you have to find your way slowly or risk tripping, and there are often men out there in these alleyways, and Jews have been knifed in the Old City even while I was here – but  even as a lone Jewish woman at night in dark alleys with Arab men she is completely fearless and says she doesn’t think about it. Mostly the people we meet – young Arab men and boys out very late at night, some drinking and smoking – are curious about what she is doing, and some are even supportive.

One Muslim boy of about 12, named Joseph, says he saved several kittens himself and offered them to Tova, but Tova’s place is already overrun with cats, many of them rescues. She has an interesting story about one of the worst incidences she experienced: three Orthodox Jewish Hasedim teenage boys who argued with her and hindered her work and called her a “Nazi” for helping animals. It ended in them all being taken to the police station. She said “say that one more time and I will dump this hummus on you!” The boy did and she put hummus on him. He called the police and hours and manpower were wasted sorting it out at the station.

I ran into an Orthodox Jewish man last night near the Western Wall who was also curious about it and took some photos of her work with his phone and grasped in broken English what it was about. But Tova is single-minded in her work and doesn’t like to stop to educate everyone on it, so she goes out very late (often after midnight) to do this work, when there are fewer people to interfere with it.

Cat are noctural, and wherever she goes in the Old City she calls to them and they know the sound of her voice and come running. She gives them some food and inspects to see if they are male of female, and if the latter, pregnant or not. She has an experienced eye and can tell right away. She traps only females and keeps the males away from the trap with food and sometimes spray from a water bottle. This is a sort of triage, because there are so many and one females can produce generations of new cats. She will catch in one night as many as the vet can take the next day. She has been working with the same vet for the last 25 years. She has a routine and is very experienced at catching them. I am told to stand back and just watch. I am there just to observe and to help car the traps.

Tova talks to the cats as they mill around her, in the narrow alleyways of the Old City. Once in the trap, the cat is scared but she consoles it and covers it with a blanket to provide it with the sense that it is hiding. My help to her was in carrying the cages. We go past checkpoints at the Western Wall, where she is allowed to park her car by special permit.

The last few times we have been going to the Small Western Wall just inside the Muslim Quarter and last night it was pitch black but we managed to see by moonlight and a light from her phone. She knows who she intends to catch and has seen them before or hears reports of females in certain areas. She goes with this plan in mind and does not stop till the females she wants are caught and in her car. At dawn she takes them to the vet. She must have had countless sleepless nights like this over the years.

Tova, I should add, is an Orthodox Jew, originally from Philadelphia. We disagree about religion – she is a religious exclusivist who is not fond of any other religion or even other forms of Judaism — and expresses herself strongly on this point (especially against Jews becoming Christians), but I respect her freedom of religion and speech, and I especially respect her great dedication to animals. To work for 40 years for animal welfare as a volunteer, day after day, night after night: this is a life well lived. I have been to her place for Shabbat dinner three times now and there is always a new guest – often from American or Europe – and she shows them the Western Wall and explains its history colourfully. The dinner is both kosher and vegan and always very good. She is a great host, and makes a living from running a space for ‘air B&B’ and doing travel guide tours. We went with a cat rescue couple to Hebron one day and met a Jewish boy who had rescued a donkey from abuse.

She has a good story about the one time she went on vacation, to Thailand, and allowed herself the luxury of being selfish just once. It did not last long. The bus she was on ran over a puppy in the middle of the jungle and she got off to rescue it. The bus went on without her and she luckily managed to hitch a ride with the puppy just before night fell in a strange land with no shelter. The people who picked her up where Christian missionaries who took her a town where she managed to find medical care for the dog, after considerable trouble, and the dog’s life was saved and he was adopted there. She ended up saving many dogs there – so her one effort to be selfish did not work. ‘Hashem’ (God) would not allow it for a moment, it seemed.

She was helped in this good work by several kind people at the time. It’s the same in Jersualem: there are often people willing to volunteer to give some small help, though there can always be more. Most nights she is out alone and has no help. To solve this problem there must be more people to step forward, and there must be widespread education of children, to urge them to care for animals. There is an SPCA in Jerusalem but I am told by everyone who knows of it – including its own representative – that kittens who go there are put down. It’s a ‘high-kill’ facility, simply because there are too many and not enough homes. Few get adopted. They are sitting in cages there in large numbers. I want to go film this before I leave this part of the world.

I did manage to rescue two kittens from the street since I have been here: one was adopted in Tel-Aviv, but the other is still with me, hiding in a box which is sitting on my bed in a hotel room. I pet her as type this and she plays with my hand, and purrs and is recovering. She is less adoptable than the first, because of fear. She was trapped inside a car motor for 20 hours before being released in front of about 40 Orthodox Jewish children. I don’t know what to do with her now or where there will be a home for her.
All the rescuers are full up with cats and there are not enough homes for them all – and as I said, most die a terrible death, of disease and flea bites and dehydration. I did not expect that my trip to the Holy Land would end up this way, but I am glad it did.

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7 Attachments;Preview YouTube video Haredi Boys, Greek Sisters, and Armenians Request Kitten RescuesHaredi Boys, Greek Sisters, and Armenians Request Kitten RescuesPreview YouTube video Cat rescuer Tova Saul talks with Dutch rescuers, Jewish Quarter, Old City, Jerusalem.Cat rescuer Tova Saul talks with Dutch rescuers, Jewish Quarter, Old City, Jerusalem.