Shelter From The Storm
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Shelter From The Storm

A donkey whisperer, Zvi Tamuz, is Israel’s official animal rescuer.

Central Israel — A call came in one recent day to a middle-aged man who lives on a small plot of land off a dirt road near a moshav here. Zvi Tamuz, a 59-year-old one-time member of an artillery unit in the Israeli Army, picked up the phone. An animal somewhere in Israel or on the West Bank was in trouble. Maybe a horse, maybe a donkey. Maybe it was being tortured, maybe it was found abandoned and starving.

Tamuz (Zvika to his friends) hitched up a narrow horse trailer to his pickup truck right away. By the end of the day, the animal was in the covered shelter he has maintained for more than a decade.

Another day, another rescued animal, another mouth to feed.

Tamuz is the founder of Pegasus (pegasus-israel.org), an Israeli nonprofit he founded to support the growing number of animals he had rescued and fed for years, finding the mounting food and veterinary expenses too much to pay out of his own pocket. He also gave his organization, which was established in 2007 with the support of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, a name that combines the name of the mythical winged horse with sus, the Hebrew word for horse.

While mainstream recipients in Israel such as educational institutions, museums and groups like the Jewish National Fund receive the bulk of charitable donations from Jews in the U.S., a group like Pegasus, Israel’s version of the famed Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary in High Falls, N.Y., is, literally, an off-the-beaten path kind of nonprofit that pulls in modest contributions to cover its relatively modest overheads. A gift of $100 will put you in The Apple Fund, $50 gets you into The Carrot Fund and $20 makes you a charter member of The Hay Fund.

Tamuz’s annual budget of $130,000 comes from the Israeli government (about $25,000) with the rest from private donors.

Proud of his work, Tamuz is equally secretive of exactly how he works, where he finds his animals, or where he and the dozens of animals now under his care live. Agreeing to be interviewed, he asked that his unmarked location not be revealed. Irate owners of animals that he has taken away have threatened him.

“I’ve never been harmed,” he adds.

Tamuz looks like a typical former soldier, with closely cropped white hair, a denim shirt, and a no-nonsense attitude.

On a sunny morning, he takes a visitor through the open-air shelter, pointing to each animal, telling its story of abuse and rescue. Then he sits under an umbrella at a small table outside his house, near the wooden walls of his year-round sukkah, to tell his story.

As he speaks, the sound of neighing from the shelter, the barking of dogs running around, many of them serving in a low-key security capacity, can be heard in the background. A peacock wanders by. And some sheep. Some crows fly over.

Tamuz is in his bucolic element. “I’m happy here,” he says.

Stacks of hay that tower over him stand nearby. The need for the feed in never ending – one bale, he says, costs about $125.

Besides one employee, a young man who lives on the grounds, Tamuz does all the shopping/schlepping/fundraising/publicizing/updating work himself. “I’m the only meshugene,” he says.

He’s also Israel’s official animal-rescuing meshugene, recognized by the Ministry of Environmental Protection.

Pegasus “is unique and the only one in Israel that works and specializes with horses and donkeys on this scale,” Gali Davidson, director of the ministry’s Animal Welfare Division, tells The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview. “Zvika provides a professional service while providing full medical care, rehabilitation and housing for these animals until they find permanent housing in a designated farm or by an adoption.

“The public relations work of Pegasus is very important and significant and greatly contributes to raising awareness and developing compassion for animals,” Davidson says. “Thanks to the dedicated work of Zvika, these animals no longer stray and [are] in danger or at risk of abuse or torture.”

“Israel is a very small country,” Tamuz says. “Lots of people” in the animal rights community “know about me. The police know, all the Army knows. Everybody calls me. There hasn’t been a day without a call.”

“The National Traffic Police, the National Roads Association and municipal vets who did not know what to do with these animals also took the opportunity to call Zvika every time they encountered a stray horse or donkey wandering alone in traffic,” the Pegasus website states. “The fear that the owners would try stealing them back or harm them in any way prevented Zvika from making public the rescue stories.”

Donkeys are Tamuz’s special concern. Israel and the West Bank are home to thousands of them. They are cheap and plentiful; they do the plowing for farmers who cannot afford a tractor; the carrying for people who cannot afford a truck. They are often overworked and mistreated, left to fend for themselves, or starve to death, when their usefulness as beasts of burden ends. Sometimes they are hit by cars; sometimes, attacked by dogs.

Some of Zvika’s animals have missing limbs or clipped ears or burn marks, the result of owners’ cruelty or indifference.

A Tel Aviv native, a “city boy” until he served during his Army days in a Nahal unit that combines military service with work on a kibbutz, Tamuz found his calling caring for animals. He worked for a while as an “animal detective,” helping owners of lost pets. While visiting animal rescue centers during his rounds he realized the lack of care for donkeys and horses.

He started rescuing animals on ad hoc basis in 1993, taking them onto the rented property where he, his wife Tanya and the couple’s two children live. Soon, word spread and the number of animals under his care grew. “We get our horses and donkeys from wherever they need rescuing,” he says. “We take from Jew and Arabs.”

The problem got worse after 2006, Tamuz says, when the price of iron rose drastically and hundreds of people in the Palestinian territories roamed around in horse- and donkey-drawn carts looking for scraps of the metal.

How many animals are on the Pegasus property? Several dozen, Tamuz says. He can’t give an exact figure. “I don’t know. I don’t count.” The number changes each day.

The cost of each animal’s care is about $250 a month.

“We find new homes for the horses and donkeys that are healthy enough to move after they are rehabilitated,” Tamuz says. “The horses and donkeys we find new homes for usually go to kibbutzim and private farms. The old and handicapped animals usually stay with us permanently. The animals that pass away are transferred for cremation at the only facility that deals with these situations.”

As long as there are animals that need rescuing, Tamuz will do the rescuing, he says.

His next goals are a visitor’s center and an educational center.

“They say the Messiah will come on a donkey,” Tamuz likes to tell people. “Until then, I will take care of them.”

steve@jewishweek.org

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