A new ER for Israel’s wildlife

Dr. Igal Horowitz, veterinarian of the Ramat Gan Safari, has opened the first hospital in Israel that provides care to non-domestic animals.A bird flies overhead and deftly grabs a worm that has been carefully placed for his enjoyment in the …

Dr. Igal Horowitz, veterinarian of the Ramat Gan Safari, has opened the first hospital in Israel that provides care to non-domestic animals.A bird flies overhead and deftly grabs a worm that has been carefully placed for his enjoyment in the crack of a tree at the Zoological Center of Tel Aviv-Ramat Gan – better known to Israelis as the Ramat Gan Safari.

That may not seem remarkable. But not long ago, the bird was a newly hatched chick that had tumbled out of its nest, with no chance of surviving. Luckily, the chick had the fortune to be taken to the new medical facilities at the Safari where he was carefully raised to the point where he can fend for himself in the wild.

The hospital is the brainchild of Dr. Igal Horowitz, 47, the Safari’s veterinarian who had been dreaming of opening a hospital for wildlife for the past 15 years. The facility opened its doors quietly in May, becoming the first hospital in Israel to tend to non-domestic animals. It is partially funded by a government body: the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority’s Parks Authority, something Horowitz views as a triumph.

“This represents the first time that the government in general and this authority in particular has officially recognized its responsibility to animals as well as land,” he told ISRAEL21c.

In two small buildings next to the zoo’s management offices, animals who fell prey to misfortune are treated: there are turtles who cruelly had their shells smashed, chicks who fell out of their nests, animals who were hit by cars, who wandered into hunting traps, consumed chemicals sprayed on crops by farmers, birds who were caught in netting or shot accidentally at civilian or IDF firing ranges and other unfortunates.

Horowitz – looking younger than his 47 years, with sandy hair, glasses and an African-looking shell necklace visible in his open-necked shirt – is all seriousness as he explains that since nearly all of the injuries that his animals have suffered are the result of contact with human beings and civilization, that humans have a moral obligation to heal them.

Horowitz grew up in Tel Aviv and trained in veterinary medicine in Italy, has been on the job at the zoo for the past 15 years. His wife, Sagit, is the spokesperson for the Safari (they met at work).

Since the hospital opened, more than 100 animals have been treated there – a remarkable number considering that there has been no publicity surrounding the opening. According to Horowitz, the primary goal of the facility is to bring the wounded animals back to their natural habitat. Those that aren’t able to survive in the wild are found homes in smaller petting zoos or other facilities.

“We want to give these animals medical treatment, to educate the public about how to treat wildlife and identify the dangers to them, and to use our facilities for research,” he said.

The research involves studying what treatments and medications work best to rehabilitate the wounded animals and which substances work as an antidote to poisons.

In addition to healing their wounds, the center is designed to study the conditions that affect the health of migratory birds, research which Horowitz says has particular importance because of Israel’s unique geographic placement.

“Israel is on a key migratory pathway between Europe, Asia and Africa. More than 500 million birds of more than 200 different species fly over Israel every year. The only other country where that happens is Panama, also a small strip of land between continents. So protecting birds in Israel has worldwide implications. Birds come to us who are poisoned or shot or electrocuted or caught in a net that surrounds a fish ponds, we communicate with the authorities as to what is happening so they can change the situation to try to prevent it happening again. We are something of a monitoring service for the government,” he said.

While the medical center is not open to regular zoo visitors, children who attend the Safari’s special workshops and summer camps are brought in for tours of the facility. Horowitz hopes in the future to design programming for children to teach them increased sensitivity to animals, and promote a more animal-friendly society. He admits that his is a challenging crusade in Israel.

“There is a higher rate of awareness of the importance of conservation in Western Europe and the United States. Here, where there are such big political and social problems, it is harder to get people to care about animals as they do in other parts of the world. But we keep trying, because we know that the people in Israel really love their landscape and many of the animals that are part of it are threatened with extinction because of development. I don’t think anyone here wants Israel to become a place that has only houses and people.”

He notes that at the start of the 20th century, there were 103 species of birds in Israel. Of these number, nine percent have already disappeared completely and no less 54 percent are in danger of extinction.

Horowitz works with a dedicated team, including staff members like clinic worker Einat Matalon, who acts as something of a surrogate mother for orphaned and wounded animals, both at the zoo and the new hospital.

“I’ve always been in charge of taking care of the most vulnerable animals at the zoo, the babies and those who have been hurt and wounded,” she says.

Matalon has been with the Safari since its establishment. The zoo opened its doors to the general public in 1974 as an African animal park, after a private collection of African animals was imported to the Middle East.

In 1981, a modern zoo was established in the middle of the park, populated with animals brought from the former Tel Aviv Zoo, which had closed.

The African Park – where the animals are allowed to wander freely and visitors view them from their cars – and the zoo within occupy 250 acres and include 1,600 animals of different species: 68 species of mammals, 130 species of fowl, and 25 species of reptiles. The Safari is the largest animal collection in the Middle East and is unique in the world, because of the large herds of mixed species of African animals that roam the spacious African Park. Of special note are its breeding herds of both African and Asian elephants, the gorilla and orangutan families, the hippo herd and the pride of lions.

The Safari participates in 25 international programs for endangered species and is involved in both breeding and reintroduction programs and in research projects for such animals. A member of international zoological organizations, the Safari cooperates with research and knowledge transfer with zoos and nature preservation organizations worldwide.

Horowitz hopes to make his hospital a permanent and integral part of the popular Safari and is looking for a generous donor to help him do so. “I would like to expand our facility and our activities, but first we must raise private donations to do so.”