An American veterinarian in Israel

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When Israeli soldiers and police evacuated settlements in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank in August, Dr. Sarah M. Levine volunteered to help evacuate the animals left behind.

Dr. Levine graduated in 1994 from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and is an active AVMA member. She moved to Israel in 2000 with her husband and three children.

Outfitted with a mobile veterinary clinic, Dr. Levine, chief veterinarian of the Israeli charity Hakol Chai, stepped forward to help after Israel's Ministry of Agriculture Veterinary Services requested that the country's animal charities and other organizations help evacuate the animals at the settlements.

Hakol Chai was organized in 2001 after its sister charity, the U.S.-based Concern for Helping Animals in Israel, decided to open its own branch in Israel. Dr. Levine joined the group in November 2003. Hakol Chai's positions on animal welfare don't always coincide with the positions of the AVMA.

Escorted by the Israeli army, Dr. Levine, two staff members, and as many as 17 volunteers entered Gaza Aug. 19 with the mobile clinic to begin evacuating animals. The 23-foot mobile clinic featured 30 cages, humane traps, an operating table, a surgical light, a preparation table, and an anesthesia machine.

"Officials made it sound like all the animals were going to be lined up and waiting for us at the gate. And they weren't. They were all loose," Dr. Levine said. "So we had to go and catch them, and that's not an easy job." She said the staff would spend most of the day catching the animals, leaving at 4:30 a.m. and not returning home until about 9 p.m. The soldiers on patrol were helpful, however, by guiding the group to areas where animals were most likely to be found.

"In Kfar Darom, I remember a soldier personally taking me to areas where he saw mother cats and kittens," Dr. Levine said. "They fed and gave water to chickens, doves, and other birds that were left in cages. They fed and gave water to backyard sheep that were left in pens."

In between tracking down the animals, Dr. Levine took time to check the health of the animals that were already rescued. In most cases, the animals required fluids to combat dehydration.

In eight days, the group transported more than 150 animals from the area to a shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel, with quarantine facilities approved by the Veterinary Services. Some animals were also transported to area boarding facilities. Along with dogs and cats, the group rescued chickens, turkeys, lizards, ducks, geese, and parakeets. Many of the animals rescued were reunited with their owners, Dr. Levine said.  

Coming to Israel 

August's evacuation of animals from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank was the first event of its kind for Dr. Levine. While at Hakol Chai, she typically spends her time at the mobile clinic spaying and neutering companion animals for local authorities and citizens. Accompanied by two staff members she trained, Dr. Levine also drives the mobile clinic to community centers and schools to educate Israelis on the proper treatment of animals.

"We try to provide services mostly for people who wouldn't be able to pay at a private veterinarian," Dr. Levine said.

She spends one to two days at the mobile clinic and about a day and a half as a practitioner at a private veterinary clinic in Ramat Hasharon, Israel. She used to practice at the private clinic more often but, after she had her fourth child, chose to minimize her time away from home. Other veterinarians on staff operate the mobile clinic when Dr. Levine's not available.

By participating at Hakol Chai and the private clinic, Dr. Levine said she strives to raise animal welfare standards and the level of awareness about proper, basic animal health care in Israel.

"It was amazing to me that people didn't know anything about vaccines (for animals)," Dr. Levine said about her first impressions after arriving in Israel. "When I started speaking about spay and neuter, it was like speaking a foreign language.

"It's a young country, and sometimes we forget that, because it's known to be one of the most technologically advanced countries, right up there with the United States. Yet in a lot of things, it's really behind, and one of them is animal welfare and animal health care." 

Challenges as a foreign veterinarian

Before moving to Israel, Dr. Levine was a practitioner at a veterinary clinic for five years in New Jersey. She maintains her membership with the New Jersey VMA.

Dr. Levine said it's difficult to stay up to date with the latest advances in the veterinary profession while living abroad. The veterinary college in Israel hosted roughly four conferences in one year, whereas the New Jersey VMA, she recalled, hosted a lecture series once a month. Dr. Levine said she also misses being constantly inundated with veterinary-related literature, though the Internet has made certain resources more accessible.

Interacting with veterinarians from a different educational background serves as another challenge for Dr. Levine. She said many veterinarians she's encountered in Israel have studied veterinary medicine at colleges around the world and have not received as high quality of an education as those who studied in the United States. In fact, the private clinic where she works approached her to join because of her degree from a U.S. veterinary college.

Looking ahead, Dr. Levine hopes Israelis will become more involved in improving veterinary care. She said there are few regulations at the private clinic where she works. "Nobody comes to check to make sure your practice is clean, or that the drugs you're (prescribing) have not expired," Dr. Levine said. "The public has no idea; they don't know that a veterinary practice should be clean like (their) own doctor's office. They're very accepting; it's very scary.

"As a veterinarian, I feel like it's my job to try and educate (the public) that veterinary care can be as modern and as advanced as human health care. I want the public to not be so accepting of the inferior veterinary practices that are out there because it takes the public to demand improvement."