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Jewish Journal

Saving Golani

An Israeli puppy’s journey from Jerusalem to Houston

by Felice Friedson, The Media Line Ltd.

November 21, 2011 | 10:32 am

Photo by Dudi Saad/TML Photos

Photo by Dudi Saad/TML Photos

A puppy born in Israel and abandoned in the streets of Jerusalem has completed his unlikely journey to a new home and new life in Houston, Texas: the final stop on a trek that began beneath the wheels of a tour bus that was parked in front of the hotel where Texas State Representative Debbie Riddle (R-Houston) and the tour group she and her husband brought to Israel were staying.

The dog’s cheerful welcome by Riddle and friends who first met the puppy in Israel culminated in an unlikely series of events that began before the Riddles even departed for their trip. The couple had debated whether Israel would be the right place to find the rescue dog they had been looking for, but without success. Riddle vividly recalls the reaction of husband Mike, a Houston estate attorney, who thought he had settled the matter with his unqualified declaration, “No, no, no. We are not going to do that.”

Looking back, though, Debbie – attractive and petit, but a determined and experienced politician now in her fifth legislative session at Austin – insists with a knowing grin that she didn’t go against her husband’s wishes at all because, “We didn’t really find him—he found us.”

An animal lover and horse breeder, Mike didn’t really stand a chance. The puppy was cowering beneath the wheels of the tour bus after being ejected from its mother’s owner’s home. “He was abandoned on the streets right in front of the hotel and he was going to die because he was under the bus. There were a lot of tour buses around and he would have been squished,” Debbie recalls. Besides, she adds, “He immediately took to me.”
Hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats are abandoned each year on the streets of Jerusalem alone. A fortunate handful are adopted by foreign residents willing to go through the time and expense of enlisting organizations that handle the bureaucratic red tape involved in relocating animals – details far more complicated than having the animal vaccinated and brought on-board someone’s flight home.

Dr. Eytan Kreiner, CEO of Terminals4Pets, the veterinarian who handled Golani’s arrangements, told The Media Line that “the first thing to be done after determining that the animal is in good health is to determine what regulations in Israel and in the destination country apply.” In the Riddles’ case, even though, as Dr. Kreiner said, “you could see from the first moment…that he’s physically in good shape…he’s happy… the only thing he wants is attention, attention, to be around people,” it would be a month of vaccinations and examinations along with a trip to the Agriculture Ministry, before Golani would reach Houston.

“To fly a cat or dog from Israel to any place in the world can vary from $500 to about $1500 or more depending on length of time the animal needs to spend in Israel, vaccinations, crating, security, Customs and transportation,” according to Kreiner.

As foreigners transporting rescued animals to their home abroad, the Riddles are not alone. It’s not unusual for visitors to rescue one or more of the hundreds of thousands of dogs and cats abandoned in Israel and ship them home for a new life.  Paula Nelson of West Virginia told The Media Line that over the past four years she has flown seven cats home, three of which have become pets for her two daughters. Nelson says, “People are crazy” and attributes the obsession with Israel’s strays as “Jerusalem fever.” Yet, she says that she and her husband, Carl, “have very tender hearts.” They spend about $3,500 annually just to feed the twelve cats, three dogs and a rabbit that live with them on their one-acre plot. But she discourages anyone from bringing back a pet they’re not willing to “take care of for life.”

According to Nelson, “you do it because you love the animal, not because it’s from Israel,” but Debbie Riddle disagrees. For her, that Golani was born in Israel was an important element in her decision to take him home, which is evident in her selection of a name for the dog. In fact, Golani’s breed is mostly Canaani, a breed indigenous to Israel and renowned for it’s prowess as a rescuer. Since part of the dog’s role with the Riddle family will relate to personal protection, Debbie wanted a “tough” name. She named her puppy in tribute to one of the Israel Defense Force’s elite infantry brigades, explaining that, “because he’s going to be a family pet, a member of the family, and also a protector, I felt like the name “Golani” fit him very well. He is very handsome and terribly lovable. He has the instinct to protect but is lovable.”

Deborah Taylor was on a Trinity Church trip to Israel when she found two kittens near Jerusalem’s Temple Mount – the spot holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Afraid one would be trampled, she scooped up the kitten and placed it in her pocket book. Her taxi driver led her to Dr. Kreiner to whom she paid $100 per kitten to insure placement off the streets. With two dogs and a cat back home, “my husband didn’t want me to bring more animals home.”

Chaya Beili, who manages the shelter at the, The Jerusalem Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (JSCPA) where currently 200 dogs and about 200 cats are currently boarded, attests to the overabundance of stray animals on the streets of the Israeli capital. She told The Media Line, “We advise leaving cats on the streets as long as they are spade. What’s the point of moving them to an environment they can’t handle? Dogs are a different story. Legally they can’t live on the streets in Israel, and practically it’s more difficult for them.” Chaya receives twenty calls monthly and can’t accommodate many of them.

“I just got a call from someone who found a puppy by the Qalandiya checkpoint [separating Jerusalem and the Palestinian city of Ramallah]. There’s no city responsible at the checkpoint. These puppies are usually strays belonging to Arab villages where spraying and neutering is banned and dog food is barely heard of. We have at least 100 of these Canaani dogs.”

Israel is not the exclusive birthplace of animals America-bound. “In both Afghanistan and Iraq, American soldiers bond with street dogs and go to all measures to bring these animals home”, according to Kelley O’Meara, director of companion animals and engagement at the Humane Society International. According to O’Meara, “Local groups are essential in expediting this complex process which in the case of Afghanistan can cost between three to four thousand dollars [per animal].”

Thirty-five days after their fortuitous meeting alongside the tour bus in front of the Olive Tree Hotel, Golani was brought to the cargo terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport where Dr. Kreiner cleared the final red tape and the dog, now grown to a robust six and a half pounds, was placed aboard a lighted, pressurized area of a United-Continental Boeing 777 jet for his flight to Houston with a Newark stopover for custom clearance. 
Meanwhile, back in Houston, inhabitants – human and otherwise – of the Riddle’s 16-acre horse farm anxiously awaited Golani’s arrival. At Houston’s George Bush International Airport, Golani was greeted by Debbie Riddle and some members of her tour group who had witnessed her fateful and dramatic meeting on a Jerusalem street. It didn’t matter whether Golani recognized Rep. Riddle because he remembered her or he became familiar with the scent of the Riddles’ socks left in the dog’s crate. An onlooker would be hard-pressed to deny a bond already existed between owner and pet.

“He ended up the birthday present I wished for,” an emotional Debbie Riddle told The Media Line by phone after arriving home with Golani.  “And Golani’s got duel citizenship: Israeli and Texan.”

This article originally appeared at The Media Line Ltd.

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