While southern Israel wrestles with a spate of wolf attacks on children, the north has been hit with its own animal crisis: rabid jackals.
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Take Sigalit Tamir, who went outside her home in northern Israel last Tuesday afternoon to feed her dog and cat. As she set the food bowl down, the dog started barking. Tamir looked up and saw a jackal suddenly pounce on the dog. “I shouted at the dog to move, she listened, and I stayed to fight the jackal,” Tamir related on Wednesday. “I took a pipe that was lying there and I hit it. It’s got those scary teeth and there’s me in my slippers, trying not to fall. It lasted maybe 10 minutes. I struck it again and it left.”
At some point during their face-off, Tamir had been able to hit the jackal on the head with some wire cutters. It moved back a little, giving her an opportunity to quickly run back into the house. But as she got to the doorway, the jackal bit her on the leg.
The incident ended with a hospital visit, a tetanus shot and a painful leg wound. The cat and dog were unscathed.
Tamir, who lives on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet in the Menashe Hills, says she is conversant with the dangers of rabies: it’s a subject discussed frequently by people in the north.
Ben Shabtai is a farmer from Kfar Yehezkel in the Jezreel Valley. More than a month ago, he was heading home from Afula on a dirt road used by many in the area. As he was driving, he saw what he thought was a sick dog and so stopped to see if he could help it.
“I got out of the car and went toward it,” he recalled last week. “It started to come at me and I saw that something looked odd.”
Shabtai ran and locked himself in his car, and from there he saw (and recorded) the animal attacking his car. He phoned friends and when he realized that the jackal was probably rabid, he called his local regional council at Megiddo.
As he was driving away from the jackal, he saw a boy on a bike going in the opposite direction. “I made a U-turn and caught up with him about 100 meters [330 feet] from where the jackal was and I told him to turn around and get out of there.”
The jackal was found shortly afterward and tests showed that it was indeed rabid.
“That was one of the first cases. Since then, we hear about a new case every day,” Shabtai said, adding that although he isn’t afraid, he has certainly changed his habits a little. “I stopped running in the field,” he said, “and if I go out, I take my dog.”
Yuval Azoulay is the environmental inspector at Megiddo Regional Council and is also a member of Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. He was at the kibbutz when he heard about Tamir’s brush with the jackal. He and the council veterinarian had been there giving emergency rabies shots to the dogs (to upgrade the existing inoculation) because a pet dog in the kibbutz had been diagnosed with rabies a few days earlier. He quickly found the jackal that had attacked Tamir and killed it.
Since the beginning of 2017 there have been more than 50 cases of rabies in Israel, with more than 30 in the past two months alone.
A new case is found almost every day in the northern area around Jezreel Valley, Menashe Hills and Mount Gilboa. Residents are describing jackals approaching homes and people – behavior typical only of sick jackals.
Five more cases of rabies were found last week in the north, including a jackal in Nahalal that was killed by guards dogs on one of the farms; a jackal around Kibbutz Nir David that was acting strangely and was shot by an inspector; and a calf from the herd at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet that died, but before that was exhibiting strange behavior.
In comparison, according to Agriculture and Rural Development Ministry data there were 29 incidents of rabies in Israel in all of 2016, mostly in Western Galilee and the Golan Heights. There were 27 cases in 2015 and 14 cases the year before that.
According to the ministry, there is not enough of a buffer between Israel and its neighboring countries. The ministry ascribes the current outbreak to infected wildlife – mainly jackals crossing the border from Jordan, where the government does not treat the disease either in wildlife or domesticated pets.
Another reason for the rise, Azoulay says, is that the jackal population is growing disproportionately. “In nature, more of them die off. But here, the weak ones survive because they have available food” in human surroundings.
Working with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the ministry sets out bait in open spaces, and this year it was decided to distribute it more densely in the problem areas. In addition, together with local governments, the ministry is inoculating feral cats, while dogs can receive rabies booster shots free of charge.
Last Wednesday, an inoculation station opened at Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. The kibbutz members, numbering some 340 families and 137 dogs, came with their pets for shots and explanations.
When an animal is bitten by another animal carrying the rabies virus, the virus moves through its nervous system to the brain. How quickly it spreads depends on a number of factors, including the size of the animal and severity of the bite. After the disease hits the brain, the virus erupts and over the next 10 days behavioral changes can be seen and the animal can continue infecting others until it dies.
Arad Hakim of Ramat Hashofet said all of the children on the kibbutz had been told about the rabies danger.
“There are usually wild animals on the kibbutz – we normally spot them off the paths or near the cowshed, but not in the middle of the kibbutz. A month ago, we saw a jackal in the middle of the kibbutz; he saw us and ran off. A healthy animal runs away.”
Another kibbutz member, Rafi Keren, said he had stopped letting his dog run loose without a leash. “Not because I’m afraid of rabies, but because of all the hysteria around,” he explained.
Megiddo Regional Council Mayor Itzik Holevsky said his council wants government ministries to get involved and take immediate steps to deal with the outbreak, and “to understand that we’re exposed to a serious hazard.”
His counterpart at Gilboa Regional Council, Ovad Nur, said his council wants to see the government provide “suitable tools, funding and backing to protect the health and safety of the residents.”
He added that his council had anticipated the outbreak and had been warning the authorities about the danger for the past year.