Israel is left with many vestiges of British rule: architecture, some archaic laws, and many many stray cats. There are an estimated million stray cats in Israel (you try and count them) with about a third being Jerusalem residents. Perhaps that is why there is a square in Jerusalem nicknamed Cat Square.
There are laws protecting the stray cats in Israel. You’re not allowed to hurt them or prevent licensed feeders (or anyone) from feeding them.
The British brought the cats over to combat the rat problem but left Israel with a stray cat problem. There are many cat lovers and cat ladies who feed the cats, spending hundreds if not thousands of shekels of their own money for this chesed. But it goes beyond feeding, many of these adoptive feline parents also take the cats to the vet for shots and care and arrange to have them spayed or neutered.
But Petach Tikvah goes above and beyond the municipal norm to care for its approximately 27,000 street cats. For one thing the Petach Tikvah Municipality, in conjunction with the city’s Veterinary Services, decided to honor these ailurophiles with a conference for cat feeders. I attended their third conference on May 30 with Penina Barzilai, one of the cat feeders. There were about 130 attendees.
In addition, when complaints came in during Covid that the cat feeders weren’t allowed out and so couldn’t feed the cats, the municipality issued a special certified card, authorizing people to leave the house in order to feed the cats. The municipality has set up about 60 feeding stations spread out across the city. Feeders are also encouraged to leave out containers of water, which is essential, especially during the summer months, so that the felines don’t develop kidney problems.
This all might be in large part thanks to Tzadok Ben Moshe, the deputy mayor and a great cat lover who was also at the conference. But Petach Tikvah has even done more. They’ve established two cat parks (the first ever in Israel), one in 2020 and one in 2022, where the cats can be fed in a serene environment, away from the danger of traffic and the stress of people. How do you tell a stray cat it has to go to the park to eat? The feeders start feeding them there and the cats catch on quickly enough. The cat parks also have a kitten enclosure where the kittens are safe and well-fed. Special needs children from a local junior high school helped to maintain the park as part of a school program.
Penina Barzilai, 70, who has been feeding stray cats for 50 years spends 1,500-2,000 NIS a month besides her own cats and vet bills. “People who feed the cats are pure souls,” she says. That may be true because such Torah luminaries as Rav Yaakov Yosef Herman and Rav Elyah Lopian were known to feed the cats.
Volunteer cat feeders also receive certificates of appreciation from the municipality for their service. These volunteers work day and night, finding strays, reporting them to the veterinary service, feeding them and cleaning up afterwards, as leftover food cat attract jackals and foxes, in less inhabited areas, or hedgehogs, that sometimes carry a serious skin disease that can transfer to cats.
The veterinary service tries to control the cat population but it’s difficult. Amazingly it takes a 70% spaying/neutering rate to decrease the cat population by 7%. That’s because cats can have 4 litters a year and the veterinary service isn’t able to catch all of them. These are feral cats.
According to halacha, one is forbidden to spay or neuter animals. But the vets say this is a matter of tzaar ba’alei chayim. Cats on the street contract disease, or are run over and injured. Kittens are sometimes abandoned or hurt by young children. Dr. Nitai Hod of the city’s veterinary service says they treat about 50 cats a month who are ill or injured. Unfortunately many, with chronic or end-of-life conditions, are put to sleep. The others are either put up for adoption or released into the care of the feeders.
Alona Chekler lives in a chareidi area of Petach Tikvah called Hadar Ganim. She started feeding the cats about a year ago and now has 50 customers, in addition to her own three, two of whom are 16 years old and blind. She began with an injured kitten and it snowballed.
Chekler got a heter from a Rabbi from Hidabroot (a popular kiruv organization) on the basis of Tzaar Baalei Chayim and she contacted the veterinary service to have “her” cats spayed and neutered.
The street cats are caught by trained inspectors and brought to the city’s veterinary service where they are de-flead, de-wormed, examined, given rabies shots and spayed or neutered. Their left ears are nicked so they’re not rounded up again.
Neither the municipality nor the veterinary service wants to get rid of the cats. The idea is to keep them healthy and safe and cared for in a way that doesn’t inconvenience the cats or the less cat-loving members of the public.
Howard and Lisa Garfinkle live in Netanya, They have three rescues from off the street as well as a dog. I asked Howard what determined which cats he adopted and he said, “They adopted us. There are cats who know how to get themselves into a good situation.” Netanya, like Petach Tikvah, has cat feeders, though without the same recognition or organization.
Other factors that can pose a danger to the cat population is Pinui Binui, the urban-renewal program to renovate buildings by tearing them down and building larger, more modern buildings. In these cases, which are prevalent, the cats lose their territory due to construction, and their feeders due to the fact that they are relocated. The veterinary service has said this matter is on their agenda for consideration.
The cat feeders are not all the stereotype one imagines – a little old lady living alone. The feeders at the conference spanned the gamut from very young – including children – to very old. They’re single and married, divorced and widowed, some with large families and some with none. There are also male feeders, though the majority are female. They have a WhatsApp group in which they ask questions and help provide solutions. The one common denominator is that they all love cats and want to make sure they’re healthy and happy.
“We have to be their attorneys. We have to represent them,” Chekler says.
The conference featured remarks by Petach Tikvah’s mayor, Rami Greenberg, deputy mayor Tzadok Ben Moshe, and veterinarians of the city’s veterinary service who discussed their services and how to take advantage of them. It was also probably the only cat feeders conference in the world catered with kosher food (for the cat feeders, who also received free bags of food for the cats – dry food being the best).
With so many people concerned with, and working for, the welfare of Israel’s street cats, it looks like stray cats will be a part of the Israeli landscape for many years to come.
* a group of cats