What should you do if you see an overburdened donkey, suffering under too much weight? The Torah demands that even if the donkey belongs to your enemy, “you should certainly help him” (Exodus 23:5). That verse may serve as the source for the Talmud’s principle that we must help suffering animals.

Many people in Metro Detroit’s Jewish community put that principle into practice by rescuing abandoned animals. These animals, perhaps once-pampered house pets now on the street, usually lack the skills to survive.

If you come across one of these animals — shivering, feverish, underfed and dehydrated — and call animal control, it would probably wind up at the pound and, if not adopted, would be euthanized — but not if some organizations can help it.

No-kill rescue organizations rescue cats and dogs, provide medical attention and foster care, recruit permanent placements, and educate the public about abandoned animals. These organizations chronically suffer from shortages of volunteers, supplies and funding.

Animal Heroes

After years of volunteering for the Humane Society, Linda Kahn Gale of West Bloomfield has volunteered with the Michigan Animal Rescue League for the past four years. A few years ago, Gale and her family provided foster care to a sick dog who had survived Hurricane Katrina. That dog accompanied the Gales to Tashlich at the Franklin Cider Mill on Rosh Hashanah. When the cantor announced the dog needed to get adopted, a fellow worshiper stepped forward to adopt her. Now Gale gets to visit with her former foster dog at least once a year at Tashlich.

005Not every foster animal gets adopted by others. Gale says that she has a few she kept herself; these are “foster failures,” the humorous name for animals that get adopted by their foster caregivers. One was a 10-year-old dog who arrived sick and terrified. Once recovered, he was the sweetest, gentlest companion.

“Senior dogs make the best dogs,” says Gale, who has facilitated adoptions for more than 20 dogs and more than a dozen cats with help from her two children Alyssa and Eric, and husband, Allan, who serves as associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Metropolitan Detroit.

Invoking an old rabbinic phrase, Gale says, “We repair the world, one dog at a time.”

Golden Retriever Rescue of Michigan takes abandoned dogs, nurses them back to health and then assigns them to foster homes. Folks who want to adopt a golden retriever connect with the nonprofit and visit dogs in foster care until they find a match to adopt. Oak Park resident Sherrill Platt first provided a foster home for golden retrievers in 1994; since then she has cared for 18 or 19 of these beautiful animals.

Carol Shapiro volunteers at an animal rescue service called Cat’s Cradle. She got started in animal rescue in 1997, shortly after she got her first dog, at the Critter Connection. Shapiro also works with animals professionally at Plaza Veterinary Hospital in Farmington. She lives in West Bloomfield with her husband, Fred, two cats and two dogs.

Shapiro feels pleased that Jewish people, in her experience, generally do not hunt.

Only two years ago, Sheri Aaron-Miller began working with SAFARI, Special Animal Friends and Rescue Inc., a local affiliate of Guardians for Animals, which, she says, has transformed her life.

“It became a huge passion for me once I realized what happens to dogs that run the streets of Detroit,” says Aaron-Miller, who belongs to Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park and lives in Huntington Woods with her husband and two teenagers.

When SAFARI members hear about a dog at a Humane Society shelter here or in Ohio, get a call from a vet about an abandoned pet or hear from police who picked up a stray dog on the street, SAFARI sends a team to pick up the animal. They provide medical care, rehabilitation, foster care and adoption services. If they cannot provide foster care, the animal goes into a kennel at SAFARI’s expense — no animal gets euthanized for being hard to adopt.

herschel evans therapy dogIn his 15 years of activity as an animal rescuer, Evan Deutsch, a copywriter from Oak Park, has played almost every role in the process. Sometimes, he just buys a dog that has been mistreated by its owner. Deutsch remembers seeing a skinny young Labrador retriever staked to a backyard fence, able to reach only a tiny food bowl and an empty water bowl. The owner seemed satisfied with the dog’s condition, but Deutsch was not. He offered $100 for the dog on the spot, which the owner gleefully accepted. After living in Deutsch’s home for a while, the dog found a permanent home with one of his friends.

On other occasions, Deutsch has done “transporting.” When the network of animal rescue groups vibrates with news of a hard-to-adopt animal at a conventional shelter, activists find a temporary home for the animal, no matter how far away, and then organize a relay team of drivers to move the animal from one state to another, until it reaches its new home.

“None of these animals,” Aaron-Miller says, “chose this life. They did not ask to be abused or put out on the street. They do not deserve this treatment. All of God’s creatures deserve to be loved.”

These fostered animals need to be adopted. Retailers Petco and Petsmart cooperate with various pet rescue operations to try to find permanent homes for rescued animals. The Humane Society has a major pet adoption event scheduled for May 18-19 at the Detroit Zoo called “Meet Your Best Friend at the Zoo.”

Aaron-Miller advises potential pet owners to consider getting a rescued animal.

Safeguards In The Lab

When Dr. David Loeffler worked as a medical researcher at Sinai Hospital in Detroit in the 1980s, he served on the Animal Care Committee, where he sought to protect animals used for medical reasons. At that time, obstetricians and gynecologists in training would use laparoscopic techniques on dogs as practice patients before trying the procedures on humans. Loeffler argued that pigs would serve better in that role.

Eventually, the hospital did switch to pigs, keeping them in a dedicated facility on the top floor, but the pigs seemed unhappy and bored. Loeffler’s solution: Get the pigs bowling balls, which they delighted in hitting with their snouts, flinging the balls against the walls of their room.

Sometimes people would ask Loeffler, “What is that noise? The whole building is shaking!” He would calmly reply, “The pigs on the top floor are bowling.”  People usually thought he was joking, until he took them upstairs to visit the pigs.

The problem with pigs as experimental animals, Loeffler explains, is that you get to like the pigs, and they get to like you.

“Pigs have personalities. The pigs make happy noises to greet you when you come into their space, and they greet you by rubbing up against you.”

Loeffler has the experience for his role as advocator for animals. He earned his veterinary degree at

the University of California at Davis and served as a large animal veterinarian in Mount Airy, N.C. Back then his wife, Sandy, used to joke that the pigs he treated should feel more secure in his care, since “he was the only veterinarian they would see who would not eat them.”

His fee, back then, was a flat $20 per visit, no matter how long the visit took; often the impoverished farmers had no cash and paid him in watermelon. After a period in Israel, Loeffler returned to the United States and earned a second doctorate in immunology at Cornell University.

Loeffler lives in Oak Park with his wife, one dog and two cats. The Loefflers’ two adult children have moved out, a move commemorated by a humorous plaque in their living room: “We had to give the children away. The cat is allergic.”

Loeffler, who now studies brain proteins in his laboratory at Beaumont Hospital, is a member of Congregation Or Chadash and Young Israel of Oak Park, and also studies at the Kollel Institute. He says that he does not regret his change from veterinarian to medical researcher: Veterinary work presents problems for an observant Jew, he says, who would not want to spay or castrate animals, and who would be at a disadvantage for taking off Saturdays, the busiest days for small animal veterinarians.

How Animals Help Us

The story remains incomplete if we look only at how human beings help or protect animals. Dogs, cats and pigs work for humans as well. They return affection to those who take care of them. Petting an animal lowers a person’s anxiety, blood pressure and heart rate. A properly trained therapy dog can provide support and empathy to sick and anxious people.

Golden retriever rescuer Platt’s first dog, Maxie, worked as a therapy dog at Fleischmann Hall. Maxie took part in a program called Pet-a-Pet; elderly and infirm people benefited from interacting with a sweet and caring dog.

Aaron-Miller reports that the Sunrise Assisted Living facility on Telegraph Road in West Bloomfield has a resident therapy dog, a large, plump Labrador retriever named Baby. One of Aaron-Miller’s own dogs, a pit bull named Lady, has begun training to serve as a therapy dog. She hopes that Lady will soon go to work soothing anxious patients, and, by doing so, will reduce some of the prejudice against her breed.

Deutsch’s first therapy dog, a Rottweiler named Frannie, began as a rehabilitation project. A friend of his found her on a highway overpass, cowering in fear with bite marks on her chest. She had recently given birth, but she was separated from the puppies. Before her first owners — whoever they were — threw her out, she had been abused and was frightened of adult men, including Deutsch. With patience and care, he nursed Frannie to health and found that she had a calm and loving personality. After she passed the American Kennel Club test to qualify as a Canine Good Citizen and potential therapy dog, Frannie accompanied Deutsch to Children’s Hospital every Sunday to visit children with serious health problems.

Once, on a weekday, Deutsch got a call from the mother of a young girl at the hospital. The girl had hydrocephalus (water on the brain) and needed emergency operations at unpredictable intervals. This had been a hard week, with several operations, and the mother said that the girl was sad and asked if he could bring Frannie to visit her daughter. Deutsch could, and did.

“The girl was lying in her bed when we walked in. She screamed out, ‘Frannie!’ and bolted up. She was about to jump out of bed and her mother had to stop her because of the IVs,” Deutsch said. “I eased Fran into her bed and the girl was in heaven. She petted Fran and began talking to her. Her mother told me that was the first time she had smiled in a week after undergoing six operations. Man, I choked up.”

Future Leader Dogs

Some dogs, like Frannie, just turn out to have the skills to help people. Other dogs start life training for a vital role in helping humans.

Consider Tanker, probably the youngest student in the laboratory wing of the engineering building at Lawrence Technological University. A 2-month-old yellow Labrador retriever, Tanker works as hard as any other student to learn his lessons, which include everything a puppy needs to know as well as how to behave politely in environments definitely not made for dogs.

Tanker is a future leader dog. Ray Ziegler, supervisor of the Fabrication Laboratory at Lawrence Tech, is raising Tanker for Leader Dogs for the Blind, providing a home for the pup until he reaches the age of 12-15 months, when he will go to Rochester Hills for higher education.

After an intensive 3- to 4-month course at Leader Dogs — provided Tanker passes all his tests — he can become the faithful companion of a blind or blind and deaf person.

Ziegler lives with his wife, two children and Tanker in Southgate. Tanker is Ziegler’s fifth puppy in training to become a leader dog.

Like Ziegler, Platt, a medical technician, raises future leader dogs. When she has a puppy to raise, she takes it everywhere, even to her synagogue. A member of the Young Israel movement since Young Israel met in Northwest Detroit, Platt takes puppies to programs at the Young Israel of Oak Park, though not to religious services.

At synagogue and other events, the puppy learns to behave politely when attending a buffet dinner or a movie. Last year, one of her dogs attended a Purim feast at the synagogue in a hot dog costume.

Ziegler and Platt do their work for Leader Dogs for the Blind without pay; the organization does cover some expenses.

“Puppy raising is a matter of chesed,” Platt says, using the Hebrew word for kindness. “This dog will be someone’s independence, mobility and safety.”

Another puppy raiser summarizes the deciding factor: “This is a mitzvah.”

The backlog of work in animal welfare keeps getting longer and opportunities remain for those who might volunteer at rescuing abandoned animals, fostering therapy dogs or raising future leader dogs. It seems that the ancient rabbis would approve
(see story below).

What Judaism Teaches

Ancient Jewish sources speculate about why abusing animals is evil. Maimonides, in discussing commandments that seem to limit how we treat animals in the presence of their mothers, writes: “There is no difference in this case between the pain of people and the pain of other living beings, since the love and the tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning but by feeling, and this faculty exists not only in people but in most living things . . . if the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle and birds, how much more careful should we be that we should not cause grief to our fellow man” (The Guide of the Perplexed, 3:48).

Ramban (Nachmanides) rejects this interpretation and insists that the commandment is aimed not at protecting animals but at “protecting us from acting cruelly” (Commentary on Deuteronomy 22:6).

A more radical concern for protecting animals appears in the works of Rabbi Joseph Ibn Caspi (1279-1340, in his Mishneh Kesef, Vol. 1, page 36): “The reason the Torah forbids inflicting pain on animals is because we humans are very close to them and we both have one father!”

Even when an animal must suffer pain because of some legitimate human need, we should make every effort to limit the pain. Maimonides understands the rules of ritual slaughter that way (Guide, 3:48). If Jews must eat meat, we must at least insist that the slaughterer inflict as little pain as possible.

Ideally, other rabbinic thinkers suggest that we should eat only plants, as in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 1:29 as interpreted by the Talmud Sanhedrin 59b) and in the blissful future paradise (Isaiah 11:7). One such vegetarian was Rabbi Shlomo Goren, chief rabbi of Israel from 1973-83.