Dog Daze

The rising demand in Israel for purebred dogs has spawned a flourishing market in animals that are smuggled in, mainly from Eastern Europe and Thailand, and sold at exorbitant prices and without papers. An investigation reveals some shady dealings and total impotence on the part of the state.

The crying could be heard from the back yard. "The puppy was drooping from the moment we brought her home," H. said, tears streaming down her face. "Already when we took her, her expression was strange. It's hard. I prepared the children," she said, partly to herself, partly to Benny Gerbi, to whom she had paid NIS 1,700 the day before for a poodle that died hours later.

Gerbi, a beefy fellow who is not exceptionally refined, showed little empathy. He blamed the fact that H.'s house is dirty. "I want you to disinfect the house," he told her. "I will give you this dog, who looks exactly the same. In short, you have another dog. Here, take bleach, go clean the house and then take the dog. Here, she's ready and waiting."

H.: "But the house is clean. We took the poodle to a veterinarian. He said she had a congenital heart defect."

Gerbi: "The vet said she had a congenital heart defect? We don't know and the vet doesn't know. Who is he, anyway? What is he, some kind of expert? A cardiologist? What's the problem? Here, this one isn't drooping and she won't droop later. There are another two-three females, don't worry. Come tomorrow to take her. Do the whole house with the bleach, all the shoes the dog touched, and then come back."

H., accompanied by her children, left Gerbi's place with her head bowed - and with four bottles of bleach. The next day she returned, after scouring the house, and took another puppy to replace the one that died.

Rampant lawlessness

Dogs are the most popular pets in Israel. No fewer than 333,000 are listed with the national canine registry. About half are purebreds or appear to be purebreds, the rest are mongrels. The most popular breeds are the Miniature Pinscher and the Labrador Retriever, followed by the German Shepherd and the Pekingese.

The high demand for purebred dogs from less common breeds, which are naturally less likely to be found in pounds, such as those run by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has led to a flourishing black market in dog imports. According to the Israel Kennel Club, only 2,258 purebred dogs were born in Israel in 2007. The mounting desire for small dogs with big names is met by dealers.

The importation of dogs proceeds locally according to clear laws and regulations. Anyone who wants to bring in, as personal "cargo," up to two dogs, cats, birds, rabbits or rodents that are not wild animals, does not need a permit from the Israeli State Veterinary Services and Animal Health unit of the Agriculture Ministry. All that is required is a certificate issued by an authorized veterinarian in the country of origin, attesting that the animal is healthy and is not harboring an infectious disease. The owner must also declare that the animals were in his possession for at least three months before being brought into Israel. Dogs and cats also require proof of vaccination against rabies, and must be at least four months old at the time they are brought into the country.

Anyone bringing in more than two animals is considered an importer, and in addition to the abovementioned conditions they also must obtain an import license. This is a one-time document, valid for three months, which specifies the breed and the number of animals being brought in. If all the conditions are not met the animals will either be sent back or destroyed.

There are two bodies in charge of supervising these imports: the ministry's veterinary services, represented at the airport by Dr. Zvika Avni for the past five years, and the customs officials, whose task is to prevent animals from being smuggled into the country.

Despite the rules and regulations, in practice lawlessness is rampant in this sphere. It is estimated that hundreds of dogs are smuggled into Israel every year and sold for thousands of shekels each, mostly without pedigree papers. These dogs come mainly from Eastern Europe and Thailand. An investigative report by Haaretz has uncovered the leading local dealers - who, it turns out, are sometimes assisted by veterinarians - and shows the impotence of the state authorities. The importers occasionally change their names and the phone numbers in their ads, but this apparently is due more to their fear of lawsuits by angry customers than to fear of prosecution. They certainly know that the Agriculture Ministry has never prosecuted anyone for illegally importing dogs. Similarly, for several years the customs authorities have not filed charges against dog smugglers or their couriers.

The spokeswoman of the Agriculture Ministry, Dafna Yurista, told Haaretz that this year only five investigations were opened against people caught smuggling dogs into Israel or who violated the terms of their importation permit.

"The five cases are in various stages of investigation and handling. In previous years additional cases were dealt with involving offenses in importing dogs, and in every case in which someone is found guilty, he must pay a fine of about NIS 500 for each dog brought into Israel illegally."

The secondhand goods site www.yad2.co.il is one of the most popular for selling dogs. According to Dr. Avni, "About 90 percent of the dogs advertised on the site were brought into the country illegally." A major advertiser is Gerbi, who writes in one of his many ads: "Shih Tzu, Toy Poodle, Pekingese, Maltese, Yorkshire terrier puppies ... Locally bred in my home. Parents on the scene. All pups completely purebred ... Full guarantee, after veterinary examination ... Assistance in helping dog adjust to family and raising it correctly."

Babies die, too

I went to Gerbi's home, accompanied by a veterinary student, ostensibly to buy a puppy. Between H.'s crying and the dealer's learned explanation as to why her poodle had died, we noticed three small puppies huddling together in a cardboard box. After H. left, Gerbi told us why she had been crying: "There were a lot of people here yesterday, and she was here, too, and took a dog. She went home, let out the dog, the children played with it, and in the evening she calls me, crying her head off, and tells me the dog died and that she went to a veterinarian who told her the animal had a heart defect and that its heart had stopped working. It happens. Hey, aren't there cases when babies die? We will replace her dog, one for one."

But obviously it's an emotional strain for her.

Gerbi: "She received the dog yesterday at 10 P.M., and you have to understand that she did not pay for the dog. It's my dog, and I asked her to look after it."

He then showed us his merchandise. "Come and see. We have poodles," he said, pointing to the dog he had promised to give H. the next day. He then took the puppies out of the carton and explained: "These are Shih Tzus. They do not shed and they don't have that doggie smell. When they are full-grown they are the size of a two-liter plastic bottle lying on its side."

The veterinary student examined the dogs and estimated that they were a few weeks old. Gerbi said they were two months old.

Do you breed dogs here?

"I have a breeding kennel. I mate them here and in all kinds of places, and sell them."

They were all born in Israel?

"Yes. I don't import dogs from abroad. There is nothing for me to bring from there."

Asked if there is documentation, Gerbi said: "There are no papers, I don't give papers. I write everything down for you, in a warranty." He showed us the copy of a receipt he had issued to someone who paid NIS 5,200 for a dog. "This is a 10-day warranty, and if the dog dies you get exactly the same thing."

He then took us upstairs to show us photographs of dogs on a computer. In one room, to which access is blocked, were a few cages and some puppies running around amid newspapers, on which they relieved themselves. During our visit, Gerbi took phone calls from potential clients and also from someone who sounded like a colleague. "I have Maltese, yeah. They just arrived from abroad, an hour ago. I haven't even gone to see them yet," he shouted into the receiver. "NIS 3,800, that's final. At NIS 3.75 to the dollar. What are you talking about? There are no Maltese in the country now, so you can sell them for whatever price you like."

What Gerbi told us in person differed from what he said in a phone conversation I had with him beforehand. He told me then that "[dogs] that are in demand I bring from abroad." He also said on the phone that he provides official pedigree papers for each dog. He added that he works with two Tel Aviv veterinarians, Dr. Ari Dushnik and Dr. Yoram Assa. "You get the dog with a warranty concerning the [absence of] incubating diseases and also a vaccination costing NIS 180 from my vets."

Dushnik is a well-known figure in the veterinary world in and around Tel Aviv. When I spoke to him as a potential client of Gerbi's, who wanted to know more about the relationship between them, he explained: "The arrangement is that I do all the vaccinations up to the third one."

Benny mentioned something about a warranty against incubating diseases.

Dushnik: "He gives his commitment. I cannot guarantee that there will not be a disease. Benny is a dealer - take him in the right proportions. He has good merchandise, he has very, very fine dogs, and usually there are no problems. I work with him a lot. I am ready to examine the dog beforehand and see that everything is all right; it won't be expensive. I am committed to him, but also committed to myself: My license is worth more than anything to me, and I will not risk it. I am his supervisory veterinarian, which means that I do all the vaccinations, the follow-ups, the ongoing treatment." [Dushnik is not the supervising veterinarian of the community in the Sharon region in which Gerbi lives - U.B.]

Where do his dogs come from?

"Most of the dogs are bred locally and there are also some that are imported. I saw that the dogs that arrived as imports were in good condition."

When I was there, someone bought a dog from him that died a few hours later.

"It's a problem with puppies. They are very sensitive at the beginning. We hope that everything will go well, but even if there is a problem he is the guarantor, which is good."

Can you tell whether a dog is purebred?

"Yes, of course. The dogs he sells are purebred without papers. If you want to take part in dog shows, they would not be suitable."

Does he have a permit?

"No. The market is riddled with loopholes."

So why do you work with him?

"I am with Benny because I can ruin him and he knows that if he sells dogs with problems, against my judgment, I charge him and the customer does not get screwed. My commitment is not to him but to the customer."

Gerbi's other veterinarian, Yoram Assa, explained that he has a retainer agreement with Gerbi, who sometimes sends him clients at his expense during a limited period, which is agreed on between him and the client. Assa said he himself does not provide any insurance and makes no commitment concerning a dog's breed and quality.

'Forged papers'

Zvika Avni dismisses Gerbi's ties with the veterinarians. "A veterinarian," he explained, "is obliged to report if he knows that someone is bringing in dogs against the law, because the dogs might be carriers of disease." Regarding Dushnik's assertion that he can determine whether a dog is purebred, Avni said, "No veterinarian can tell you whether a dog is 100-percent purebred, unless there are papers."

"Since January of this year, about 500 dogs have entered the country legally," Avni continued. "About 300 were brought in by importers and the others by private individuals. In the past year, 10 attempts to smuggle in dogs were discovered, each involving six to eight dogs."

Is that a negligible amount?

Avni: "Regrettably, yes. These guys are very sophisticated. Sometimes they drug dogs and bring them in. Or they might use couriers with Israeli or foreign passports. They have no feelings when it comes to cruelty to animals, and they care nothing about the health of dogs or people." Import permits are not very expensive, Avni added. "When it is explained to them that there is no reason not to obtain a permit, they claim the costs are very high."

Economizing on "costs" is actually a tax violation: Anyone who brings a dog into the country for commercial purposes must make a customs declaration regarding the animal's value and pay VAT accordingly. He must also pay taxes on the profits he makes. But there are many other serious problems.

According to Avni, the public is not aware of the health problems entailed in the unsupervised importation of dogs, or of the suffering caused to the dogs. Many of those who buy the dogs do now know that a dog is considered purebred only if there are pedigree papers testifying that both parents were also purebred. Physiologically, a dog can be a purebred without papers, but no official body will recognize it as such and the dog will not be able to take part in shows or in formal, organized breeding.

Avni related that he gets threats like, "If you touch the dogs we will rip off your arms and legs." Or, if it is the underworld, "I know where you live." "If there is physical violence - which happens with about every second seizure of illegal imports - we bring in the police," he said.

Yossi Ben Ari is the customs official in charge of the passenger arrivals' hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport. "Most of the smuggled dogs come from Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Thailand," he explained. "We encounter passengers who become couriers and bring in dogs, most of which arrive with forged health papers. The dogs are carried in special bags. Sometimes we let a person with dogs leave the terminal and follow him. We then find that the dogs have been pre-ordered and are distributed to all kinds of people [dealers]. In those cases we call a veterinarian and immediately fly the dogs back. A few weeks ago, we caught an El Al ground attendant who smuggled in six pups on a flight from Thailand and distributed them to members of his family who were with him."

Gili Broudo is another leading figure in the local dog market. His Web site, www.dogland.co.il , proudly lists an impressive variety of purebreds. The site states, "We can also import dogs from several European quality habitats" and that "DogLand is a company that was established at 2000, and is one of the leading company at the entertainment dog field [sic]."

A search at the Registrar of Companies failed to turn up any such firm. The Agriculture Ministry stated that DogLand had never received an import permit. In the past, Broudo ran a company called Dogs R Us, which changed its name to the Kfar Hayarok Dog Ranch. According to Avni, Broudo was granted dog-import permits in the past, but was caught smuggling and presently does not have any.

Shai and Irit Apotaker would like to forget their bitter experience with Broudo. "We wanted a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel," Irit recounted. "We contacted the Kfar Hayarok ranch and ordered a dog that was imported from the Czech Republic. When the shipment arrived, we went to see it. The dog looked very small and younger than three months, but we decided to take her. She cost us NIS 4,000. At first we were promised that there would be pedigree papers, but in the end we were not given a certificate: We were simply given a commitment that the dog was purebred.

"From the start she had diarrhea and after five days she started to throw up nonstop. She was hospitalized and diagnosed with parvo, a disease with an incubation period of a week, so that it was clear she was infected before she came to us. Fortunately, after expensive treatment the dog was saved.

"Throughout this entire period we were in touch with Gili and asked him to share in the treatment costs. The only thing he said was that we should bring the dog back and he would replace it. It was shocking. From his point of view, we would bring the dog, which would simply die, and take another dog."

The Agriculture Ministry's response to Haaretz: "Recently the veterinary services unit revoked the company's import permit following suspicion of a violation which is now under investigation."

In a phone conversation with "Gilad," as Broudo calls himself in some ads, he said that he currently has in his home Cavalier, Maltese, Bichon Frise and other puppies. "They are beautiful dogs," he explained. However, sources in the miniature dogs' group of the Israel Kennel Club, which is responsible for registering and supervising various breeds, stated that there is no authorized breeding of Maltese Terriers in Israel. "What you see on the Internet is an unregistered dog or a dog imported into Israel illegally," said Maya Shabiro, a breeding expert in the group.

Booming business

Last Friday, in the yard of Broudo's spacious home at 10 Shefayim Street in Herzliya, business seemed to be booming. Three small puppies were closed behind a fence, and Broudo took constant phone calls from potential buyers. The puppies he sells were born in Israel, he told me, and promised that I would get pedigree papers upon purchase. I asked to see more puppies, but he refused to let me in the house. Two days later, when a client came to see puppies for sale, he found that Broudo had beefed up his staff in the person of a hefty Russian who was, as far as the client could tell, a bodyguard.

Another local group whose name has recently been mentioned in connection with smuggling dogs into Israel is based in Bangkok, and operates out of the well-known Israeli travel agency and restaurant, Hakesher Hayisraeli (the Israeli Connection). According to staff of the veterinary services at the airport, this group was caught trying to smuggle dogs into the country. A backpackers' forum on the Lametayel Web site contained several messages in which surfers wrote about buying dogs from the Israeli Connection.

One such message, dated June 2008, was from a woman who bought a dog from "Gili and Haggai." "When I asked about the dogs' health," she wrote, "I was told that the dogs are brought from a farm that specializes in breeding dogs of the kind I wanted, and that the dogs are protected and I had nothing to worry about ... Unfortunately, the dog started to have diarrhea and became apathetic ... For a week the dog was in daily treatment by a veterinarian, and then died."

"Gili" is Gilad Gerbi (no relation to Benny Gerbi, as far as is known). When I told him I was interested in importing dogs into Israel, he told me he works for the Israeli Connection and said that purebred Shih Tzu, Pomeranian, Yorkshire, Pekingese and other pups sell for between NIS 1,000 and NIS 1,500, payable in shekels, dollars or Thai currency. "You get an international birth certificate for the dogs," he said, adding, "I send a great many dogs to Israel, to all the dealers there, and they sell them for NIS 4,500-5,000 each."

How do they get the dogs?

Gerbi: "They organize people for me, or I organize it with people who come or via cargo, but that is riskier."

So they make a lot of money.

"I know. It's a ton of money. I sell to Israel in quantities, quantities."

There are five local dealers who bring in dogs legally, and about the same number without a permit. At least half the import market, then, is run as a black market. There are also dealers who draw on the local market of breeders and kennels.

Yair Shohat is a dealer of the latter category. A breeder of purebreds who lives on Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek, Shohat does not make a profit personally from selling dogs and has no problem rejecting people he thinks are unfit to raise one. Now 70, he has been raising, training and selectively breeding since 1960. In the past he worked with German Shepherds and dachshunds; nowadays he raises Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.

Three dogs are scampering around his home. He bought the youngest of them, only a few months old, in Germany recently. With unabashed pride he related that the oldest of the dogs, now nine, has 60 offspring.

Shohat explained the problems that dogs develop if they are separated from their family too soon, such as those that are illegally imported into Israel. "Until the age of three weeks the surroundings are of no interest to a pup. Its sense of smell takes it to his mother's nipple, and that's all. Afterward, it begins to raise its head and notice the other pups. At six weeks it begins to take notice of people. A puppy that is taken away from its mother too soon, or that did not have time to bond with the rest of the litter - even if you give it the best food and it looks good physically - will have a defective character and lack a relationship with its own kind. If a puppy does not come into contact with human beings from the age of six to 16 weeks, there is no chance that it will be a good dog. It will be damaged; there are plenty of examples of that."

How is the price of a dog decided?

Shohat: "There are no standards, but certain prices are accepted and you can go according to that. I set my price; if it suits you, fine, and if not you can go elsewhere. My price is not low: NIS 4,500 for a pup, partly because I want to reject those who don't understand what they are paying for. If the only thing that's important for someone is the money, he can go to the Internet and choose a dog by the price. There are definitely people I will not sell to. When I see someone dense who doesn't want to listen, I don't sell to him."

Do most people buy on the spot?

"Definitely not. People call and ask questions, and already at that stage I don't butter them up. If I see that they are stubborn, I start to give them information and invite them for a meeting."

With the dog?

"No, with me. For example, if I get the impression that the husband wants a dog and the wife doesn't, they will leave here without a dog."

From your experience, who are the people that have purebred dogs?

"People with money. If they didn't have money, they would not have a purebred dog. This all developed after the Six-Day War, when there was an economic surge in the country and the purebreds started to show up."

Watchdog for NIS 300

In June 2004, her family's American Staffordshire terrier killed four-year-old Avivit Ganon from Tel Aviv. Five months later, regulations for supervising dogs came into effect (importation and possession of dangerous dogs), which listed the types of dogs that are considered dangerous (American Staffordshire terrier, better known as Amstaffs, bull terrier, Argentine dogo, Japanese tosa, English mastiff, pit bull terrier, Brazilian fila and the Rottweiler) and detailed the rules for keeping and raising them.

The regulations prohibit the importation of dangerous dogs and of mixed breeds of the above varieties. The owner of a dangerous dog must be 18 years old or more, and must have a special permit. A sign (with lettering at least 5 centimeters high) has to be posted in the home, warning of the dog's presence. Dangerous dogs can be taken into the public domain only if held by a person aged 18 or over, who is capable of controlling them; the leash must not exceed 2 meters in length and the dog must be muzzled. It is mandatory to sterilize or neuter a dangerous dog, and such an animal may be given or sold only to the security forces, to the municipal veterinarian or to a pound, at the latter's authorization.

Despite these stringent rules, supervision is lax here, too, and anyone who wants to buy or sell a pit bull can avail himself of various Internet sites. In fact, not only private individuals trade in these animals, but organized facilities for dogs as well. On its Web site, the Geva dog pound of Kibbutz Lahav offers to take dogs that no one wants: "Want to give away your dog? Not getting any calls? Call me. I take dogs (including aggressive ones), train them and find warm homes for them. Cooked food aplenty (rice, meat, fowl, pasta), not dry, tasteless food. Space for the dogs to run around, not cages."

What do the Geva people do with dangerous dogs? I called them in search of a pit bull to serve as a watchdog and was contacted by the owner, Geva Tzin. "I have a female that was raised in a family," he told me. "Sterilized, an excellent watchdog, trained, vaccinated. She costs NIS 300." Tzin referred me to a page on the Yad2 site where I could see the dog. "It says 'mixed French boxer,'" he said, explaining that "she is a pit bull, but I can't write that."

Won't there be a problem with the law?

Tzin: "No. You can always say you found her. Look, it's not enforced. There are so many laws in our country, but they are not enforced. It is also a stupid law, a political law. You won't get into trouble: It's not that they will throw you in jail. They will reprimand you. It's not that they will kill the dog."W