As Number of Stray Cats in Israel Soars, Spaying Programs Lag Over Lack of Funds

The $1.2 million allocated for the task can only finance 21 out of 88 local governments in need of funding for the program.

Street cats in Be'er Sheva.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

As the number of stray cats around Israel soars, dozens of local governments have not spayed and neutered stray cats due to lack of funding.

Over the past several months, the Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry has allocated 4.5 million shekels ($1.2 million) for the task, but Haaretz has learned that of 88 local governments that requested funding through the program, the allocation was only enough to fund 21 of them.

Most of those localities that failed to get funding are simply not carrying out cat spaying and neutering programs, resulting in a steep increase in stray cat populations. It would require a total of 9.5 million shekels to meet all of the requested funding from local governments through the program, which requires that the local governments match the funding on a one-to-one basis.

Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, a member of Habayit Hayehudi, whose core constituency is from its predecessor party, the National Religious party, expressed opposition last year to cat spaying and neutering programs for "running counter to the religious or ideological beliefs of various segments of Israel's population." At the time, he asked that funding earmarked for spaying and neutering programs be shifted to fund research for alternate solutions to the problem, but he was ordered by then-Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to restore the funding.

If funded in full, the requests from the 88 local governments that asked for funding this year from the Agriculture Ministry would have been sufficient to spay or neuter 95,000 street cats. The ministry, which is required by the animal welfare law to fund spaying and neutering programs, estimates the cost of spaying or neutering one cat at 200 shekels, half of which the ministry is providing to the participating municipal governments.

The locales that have received ministry funding were selected based on criteria released about a year ago and include the number of cats that the municipal government commits to neuter, the number of residents in the community, the geographic area of the community and its socioeconomic status.

For its part, the Agriculture Ministry said in response in part: "Responsibility to deal with stray animals in that of local authorities. Ministry support for the spaying and neutering of street cats in the local [communities] is designed to support and not to replace municipal activity. In recent years, the Agriculture Ministry has run a support program for the spaying and neutering of street cats, but it expects the local authorities to carry out their own activity without regard to financial support. That is true particularly with respect to well-to-do local governments."

The ministry decided to give priority to providing support for isolated communities and for those local governments that have committed to provide trash cans that are buried underground and to provide feeding stations for street cats. Nevertheless, most of the communities that received ministry support this year are relatively well-to-do. Among them are Tel Aviv and other communities in the Greater Tel Aviv area, including Ramat Gan, Holon, Kfar Sava and Netanya, and that leaves a number of communities that have a serious street cat program with no funding.

The relatively poor city of Ramle southeast of Tel Aviv, for example, has spayed or neutered about 400 street cats this year but has received no ministry funding. "In Ramle, there are thousands of street cats," said Revital Orbach, the director of the city's veterinary service. "The municipality makes every effort to spay and neuter street cats," she stated, "but it is not capable of spaying and neutering even a quarter of the stray cats without ministry support." A single female cat can have as many of 160 offspring within two years, she adds.

The Be'er Sheva Municipality in the south requested ministry funding for the spaying and neutering of 2,000 cats, but was not selected to receive support. And unlike Ramle, in the absence of ministry funding, it carried out no spaying and neutering program of its own this year. "The numbers here are crazy. There is no street in Be'er Sheva where you won't find dozens of cats around trash cans," said Hadas Lev, an animal rights activist in the city. "Not a day goes by that I walk on the street and don't see a dead cat or a cat that is thrown onto the streets and that I then take care of." Even if the Agriculture Ministry would fund the spaying or neutering of 2,000 cats, it would not fully deal with the problem, Lev claimed.

For his part, the 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."

Yael Arkin, the CEO of the animal welfare organization Let the Animals Live, is calling for government funding for spaying and neutering to be increased immediately. "The budget is too small, without a doubt. We need to triple it to begin to bring about some kind of change. I have approached every mayor and every municipal veterinarian and have asked all of them to carry out spaying and neutering even if they don't get Agriculture Ministry funding."