Jewish Journal

Pet Project

Dr. Yonatan Peres raises money to fund a guide dog center in Israel.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Nov. 14, 2002 at 7:00 pm

Dr. Yonatan Peres examines a Labrador retriever in training at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.

Dr. Yonatan Peres examines a Labrador retriever in training at the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.

Dr. Yonatan "Yoni" Peres acknowledges that being the son of former Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres can be a mixed blessing.

"The name helps open some doors," he said, "but sometimes it closes them."

The doors through which the younger Peres, a doctor of veterinary medicine, hopes to pass at the present time lead to potential supporters of his pet project, the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind.

With Los Angeles as his base, Peres is spending some months in the United States as the center's volunteer development director. It's an assignment in which he must compete with better-known Israeli causes and institutions for contributions from U.S. Jews.

Although the center also has support organizations in Britain, Switzerland and Israel, American donations account for 80 percent of its annual budget of $630,000.

There are some 20,000 blind persons in Israel, among them 150 veterans, blinded through combat wounds.

The acceptance of guide dogs, as of animal pets in general, is not as common in Israel as in the United States, Peres said. According to his statistics, there is one pet dog or cat for every two Americans, while in Israel the ratio is one such pet to every 20 people.

He attributes the difference to the higher living standards of Americans, with their larger homes and backyards, as well as the remnants of a "galut [exile] mentality," which associates dogs with pogroms and Nazi concentration camps.

Peres was a member of Hebrew University's first graduating class in veterinary medicine, but he traces his love of animals back to his childhood.

"That's something you are born with, you don't acquire it," he said.

Though not claiming any genetic family inheritance, Peres notes that his father, after arriving in Palestine from Poland, worked as a kibbutznik in charge of cows and sheep.

The middle of three siblings, Yoni Peres remembers a difficult childhood as the son of a famous father.

"You were always under the microscope," he recalled. "When you did something well, people thought you used your family connections. When you did something bad, it was a public disgrace."

He has found in the United States a greater appreciation of his father's talents and contributions than in Israel, but

he quickly turns the conversation back to the present.

"I want to live as a normal person, not as the son of a famous man," said Peres, a divorcé who just turned 50.

Up until a decade ago, a blind Israeli waiting to acquire a guide dog had to travel to the United States for training, a move that required considerable money, separation from family and fluency in English.

Even those who overcame the obstacles found that the guide dogs, transplanted to Israel, had to make a difficult adjustment to a strange land and language, and no facilities were available to deal with subsequent problems.

In 1991, Noach Braun, who had worked with dogs during his Israeli army service, and subsequently trained in the United States and Britain, opened the guide dog center and three years later moved it to its present location in Beit Oved, south of Tel Aviv.

The facilities were, and still are, spartan by American standards, though the kennels are state of the art. Braun and his wife, Orna, acquired two breeding dogs and four mobile homes -- two for offices and two to house four blind persons during their training period.

Peres, then in private practice and teaching at Hebrew University, joined the center as a volunteer shortly after its opening and is largely responsible for the medical screening and evaluation of potential guide dogs.

Just as important are the psychological profiles of the dogs to assure a successful relationship with their blind owners.

"Some dogs are shy, a few are too aggressive," Peres said. "In the case of Golden Retrievers, for instance, the human partner has to know that they are very sensitive and easily insulted."

So far, more than 180 Israelis have found a new independence and self-assurance as graduates of the center, and an ambitious building program is underway to accommodate many more.

On the drawing board are plans for a main building to replace the mobile homes, which will include six to eight bedrooms for the trainees, living and dining room, computer and music facilities, a Braille library and administrative offices.

With he Israeli government providing only 9 percent of the center's operating budget, the bulk of the money will have to be raised through private donations.

For more information about the Israel Guide Dog Center for the Blind, call the Los Angeles office at (310) 453-1212, e-mail yperes@adelphia.net or visit www.israelguidedog.org.

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