Killing of Israeli cats galvanizes U.S. animal lovers

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WHIPPANY, N.J. — An American group of animal lovers has joined the fight to stop the Israeli city of Arad from killing about 5,000 feral cats.

Arad for Animals, an animal-rights group in the Judean Desert city, is seeking a court injunction to prevent the municipal government from going ahead with its plan.

After reading an appeal for help on the Internet, the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance decided to enter the fray. The group is writing to Israeli officials in protest, as well as providing Arad for Animals with proposals and materials.

"Everywhere you go there are cats. You can't open your front door without a cat trying to get inside," says Joseph Simhon, Arad's city veterinarian and head of the sanitation department. "I'm not anxious to kill. It's not very nice to kill animals. But I'm in charge of the public health. I'm trying to save people."

The plan calls for authorities to set out food laced with an agent called alpha-chloralose throughout the city, which sits near the Dead Sea. About 23,000 people live in Arad.

According to Simhon, the agent is an anesthetic that will put the cats into a coma. Once unconscious, the cats will be collected, placed in plastic bags and buried. Animals that are still alive will be given lethal shots and buried with the others.

Arad for Animals believes the cats will not die from the drug, but will simply be immobilized until they suffocate in the plastic bags or are buried alive, said Ellen Moshenberg, Arad for Animals chair.

Such an action would never occur in New Jersey, says Janine Motta, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Animal Rights Alliance.

If a New Jersey city were overrun with cats perceived to be a health risk, Motta says, they would probably be trapped and transported to an animal shelter, where they would be held for adoption or euthanized with shots.

It's actually the method that Arad wants to use that bothers animal rights groups.

"It's not the right way," says Rivi Mayer, director of the Cat Welfare Society of Israel in Kfar Saba. "If there is a serious threat, there are humane ways. Throwing poison around is very, very stupid. It's really very backward. It's not what a modern country would do."

Arad's cats are thought to pose a health risk to residents as possible carriers of rabies.

Simhon admits that it's rare to catch rabies from a cat. Most cases are spread by dogs, and, in Arad, by foxes from the nearby desert. But Simhon says he is worried that rabies will eventually spread to the cats and he doesn't want to wait for that to happen.

"I'm made out to be the bad guy, that I hate cats. I didn't become a veterinarian because I hate cats. But I can't let stray animals wander the city," said Simhon, who has four pet cats.

The animal-rights groups wants Arad to start a spay-neuter program to control the high number of cats. Simhon said the city can't afford it, but is open to letting volunteer veterinarians and members of animal-rights groups spay and neuter all the cats in Arad.

The real problem, Mayer says, is that cats are simply not held in high regard in Israel, where they are frequently likened to rodents. On this point, all parties agree.

"When I brought my cat to Israel, people thought I came from the moon," said Moshenberg, a Rutgers University graduate who made aliyah in 1975.

"Nobody wants cats," says Simhon, adding that Arad has a dog shelter but no cat facility .

In the United States, where cats are more popular than dogs, such sentiments are hard to swallow.

"We need to move past that," says Motta, who's never been to Israel. "Quite frankly, all animals have the right to live. We shouldn't debate which ones are worthwhile and which aren't."