A Sheep Dip

When an Australian sheep jumped ship in Eilat harbor, an ad hoc coalition of rescuers came together to save it from the slaughterhouse.

Every few weeks, a large ship anchors in Eilat Bay after making the long journey from Australia. The deck of the Jordanian-owned vessel holds livestock, tens of thousands of animals, brought to Israel to be slaughtered.

A few weeks ago, on a day when the ship anchored in the harbor, Hadas Zion - a maintenance supervisor at the Eilat Dolphin Reef - ventured out on a small boat, accompanied by Sahar, a 14-year-old volunteer. About 100 meters from the coast, the two identified a sheep paddling in the water. The teenager took off his clothes and jumped into the sea. "It looked to us as though the sheep was trying to swim back to Australia. His fleece was drenched with water, and he was very heavy and tired," Zion recalls. Due to its weight, the pair were unable to hoist the wet sheep into their boat. Zion went to call for help while Sahar stayed and kept watch over the animal in the water.

Sheep - Sebastian Tropolit - March 2012
Sebastian Tropolit

With the help of Dolphin Reef coworker Yani Azulai, the sheep was brought safely to land. "Our thought was that the sheep deserved freedom, that it would be unfair to lead him to slaughter. An old law of the sea holds that whatever you find in it is yours," Zion explains.

At first, the duo refused to take the sheep to Dr. Yuri Shuv, Eilat Bay's chief veterinarian and an Agriculture Ministry official. Eventually, after Shuv promised to help the two retain possession of the sheep, it was taken for medical exams and quarantined, as is the protocol for animals imported to Israel.

A short while passed before the Israeli importer demanded his animal back. However, after discussions, he agreed to relinquish the sheep and the Dolphin Reef agreed to pay for the quarantine and vaccines. "The importer softened up. He understood that our intentions were honest," Zion says. This week the sheep was transferred to a small zoo at the southern Kibbutz Neot Smadar.

Dr. Shuv notes that during the first hours after the rescue, the 8-month-old sheep's future was in doubt, with the veterinarian unsure it would survive. "We moved him to quarantine and supervision," Dr. Shuv recalls. "It had spent a lot of time in the water, and water had reached its lungs, and that could have caused complications. Later I saw that its health had stabilized, that it was eating and drinking."

Nobody knows how the sheep got into the water. "This happened when the livestock were being led off the ship. Did it jump from a bridge or ramp, or from a truck? I don't know," says Shuv. "I looked into it, but nobody had any information. The sheep couldn't have jumped straight off the boat, because it wouldn't have survived the landing."

The veterinarian is impressed but not surprised by the sheep's strength of character: "Sheep have strong survival skills. In the Australian outback, they can live without water for days," he says.

This was not the first incident involving livestock swimming in the bay. "We have had previous experiences," says Shuv. "The animals jump, escape. They are animals, and animals don't always do what we want them to do." As far as he knows, this was the first time someone who had rescued an animal from the sea took ownership of it and saved it from slaughter.