By Larry Derfner, The Jerusalem Post, March 26, 2009
On a mission from God
Avi Kuzi, who looks like Rambo and goes to Ramboesque
extremes to rescue animals, is tramping through the trees and
brush at Abarbanel, the country's best-known mental institution,
looking for a runaway cat. The cat, a female named Kitzka, was
being cared for by Holocaust survivors at Abarbanel under the
supervision of their social worker, Hanna Yitzhaki, a zealous
cat guardian who stays in close touch with Kuzi.
From behind a barred window comes the loud, hoarse,
incoherent wailing of a patient who sounds like he's trying to
break out of a straitjacket. Kuzi, focused totally on his work,
charges on, followed by Yitzhaki calling, "Here, Kitzka, come to
me, Ki-i-i-i-tzka, Kitzkaleh, come, my princess..."
After half an hour of searching by Kuzi, Yitzhaki, a
white-uniformed Abarbanel cook, photographer Jonathan Bloom and
me, Kuzi spots Kitzka, who's orange with tiger stripes, huddled
in the high grass amid a network of pipes at the base of a wall.
Ordinary people would never have seen her through such a thick
camouflage. "Only Avi," says Yitzhaki.
After awhile, Kitzka walks out of her hiding place, limping
on a wounded leg. Suddenly a black cat, the local bully, trots
up and attacks her, they roll in the dust and Kitzka flees into
the crawl space under a giant storage container. Kuzi goes to
his van and takes out gloves, a lasso on a pole, a pair of
flashlights, a cat trap and a blowpipe that shoots tranquilizing
"Whenever I have a really hard situation, I call Avi," says
Yitzhaki. For instance, she called him late one night a couple
of months ago to save a cat that was heard whimpering underneath
a downtown intersection in Tel Aviv. With a crowbar and large
screwdriver-type tool, he pried open a manhole cover, climbed
about 10 meters down the ridged wall of the sewer system, shone
his flashlight and eventually saw the cat's glowing eyes. He
went back up, prepared a trap, brought it back down, and at
about three in the morning, two hours after he'd arrived, he
climbed out and handed Yitzhaki the cat.
Kuzi, in his 40s, says he's rescued thousands of animals in
his 15-year career. He keeps an album of photos of his most
memorable adventures, including those that ended in failure and
still haunt him. His company logo is drawn from a photo taken
early in his career of him holding a dog he found in Jerusalem
whose face had been chopped off by someone with an ax. He'd
rushed that dog to a clinic and accepted the vet's advice to
have it put down, but if he'd known then what he knows now, he
says, he never would have agreed; he would have gotten the dog
"I don't allow myself to forget that," says Kuzi in his North
Tel Aviv apartment, his eyes tearing up. "It's at the center of
my consciousness. It's the reason I do what I do."
His apartment is an informal rehab center for disabled strays
he finds that no one wants. The current population includes four
dogs, one of which had acid thrown in its face, another that's
blind, another born without front legs; and seven cats, one of
which lost a leg when the car engine it had crawled into got
started up, another born without front legs, another whose
balance is off and three that are blind.
"They've suffered all they're going to suffer, now it's time
for them to have a good life," he says.
SEVERAL OF his most challenging rescues are detailed in the
media clippings he keeps in his album. Once he rappelled 15
meters down an elevator shaft at Tel Aviv University to rescue a
cat that had fallen in. Another time he rappelled two stories
down the side of a Tel Aviv high-rise to free a hawk that had
gotten stuck in a grating. Another time he rode a construction
crane into an IDF minefield in the Arava to rescue a wounded
So for him, the search last week for a cat belonging to
Holocaust survivors at Abarbanel, a task that kept him running,
crawling and climbing walls for more than two hours, wasn't all
He himself, however, is. Kuzi is a larger-than-life hero - in
his exploits, his physique, his intense personality and
relentlessness to save and protect animals, which he sees as a
calling from God.
Sitting in his living room near a bookcase lined with holy
Jewish texts, Kuzi, who is very religious though in his own way,
says: "My love for animals is rooted in the Book of Genesis. I
try to be like Adam, the first man, who was created only after
God created the snakes, the birds and all the other animals. God
gave us the responsibility to watch over them."
His arms have scars and scratches - most of them, he says,
from a monkey he coaxed down years ago from the tall eucalyptus
trees of a Petah Tikva backyard. "When I saw him swinging up in
the trees, I said to myself, 'How do I communicate with him?'
Then I started making these sounds, and while I was doing it, I
was saying inside, 'Come to me, come to me.' If you ask me to
make those sounds now, I can't remember them. I don't know where
they came from. But little by little the monkey came down from
the trees, sat on my shoulder and I managed to get a leash
He brought the monkey home, tied him to a 10-meter cable and
let him go out the window and explore, but the monkey began
launching attacks on the dogs in the apartment, so after a
couple of months Kuzi gave him to the Monkey Park in Ben-Shemen.
"Look at this - when I tried to keep him away from the dogs, he
bit a muscle in my forearm. Here he took a bite out of my
shoulder. Little bastard."
His cellphone rings. It's Miriam, another lady who adores and
worries about stray cats - an "angel," he says, like Hanna
Yitzhaki. "Miriam, don't worry, he's living like a king right
here," he tells her. "He's so good, so sweet, you can stop
worrying... They're sleeping together right now."
He's talking about Ginji, the off-balance, defenseless cat he
found, on a tip from Miriam, cowering in a Ramat Gan hallway,
and who now has his own cushion on Kuzi's third-floor balcony.
The apartment, where Kuzi lives by himself, is extraordinary.
Despite the four dogs and seven cats, it's perfectly neat,
spotless and odorless, the last because the windows are kept
wide open. He made most of the colorfully-painted furniture
himself out of old wooden pallets the supermarkets gave him. He
made the facade that covers his front door, as well as the big
lighting fixture on his living room ceiling, out of eucalyptus
bark. The animal he identifies with most is the wolf, and the
walls of the living room and kitchen are lined with framed
photos of wolves, and he's painted large wolves' heads on the
sliding glass doors of his living-room balcony.
All the dogs and cats live side by side peacefully, except
for the occasional growling and barking that goes on between
big, shaggy Cosmo, born to an orphaned wolf and a badly injured
dog, and Shapira, a little Doberman who lost both eyes when a
car hit him. "They're both males, so they bother each other," he
says. "I think the only problem Shapira has in his life now is
Cosmo, and the only problem Cosmo has in his life now is Shapira."
HIS VIEWS and habits regarding everything having to do with
animals are extreme. Every now and then he goes into a pet shop,
buys as many birds as he can afford and sets them free. A vegan,
he refers to milk as "white blood," saying it's meant for the
cow's calves, not for people. He sews pictures of wolves onto
his shirts. He will have nothing to do with leather products,
showing me the "Vegetarian Shoes" brand on his hiking boots,
which are made of synthetics.
He won't go to a restaurant where meat is served, or even,
for the same reason, to a wedding or bar mitzva unless it's
given by a family member. He doesn't hate meat-eaters, but he
definitely hates hunters. And fishermen. "I can't bear to look
at them," he says. A diver, he occasionally goes out to where
the fishermen cast nets from their boats, then he dives under,
takes out his knife and cuts the nets open. "When the fishermen
pull the nets up, they must figure a shark was there," he
"Whenever I hear about a fisherman falling into the sea and
drowning, I say, 'Justice was done,'" he goes on. He doesn't
mean to shock, he's just being candid. "I was watching that
movie, A Perfect Storm, with my family, and they were all
crying when George Clooney [who played a fishing boat captain]
drowns in the end. I was happy, I thought it was great," he
laughs. "The only thing that worried me was that he wasn't going
Under the storage container at Abarbanel, Kitzka is cowering
in a corner. Kuzi doesn't think she's in a life-threatening
condition, explaining that cats can definitely get along with
one bum leg, still he wants to get her to a vet. He slides the
lasso along the ground under the container toward Kitzka,
telling Yitzhaki, "Talk to her, try to calm her down."
Lying prone in the dirt, Yitzhaki calls, "Kitzkaleh, my
beauty, come to me, we're going to take you to the doctor, come,
Kitzka, Ki-i-i-itzkaleh, Ki-i-i-i-i-itzkaleh, come sweetheart,
come, we want to help you..."
The cat keeps running away from the lasso, so Kuzi takes out
a trap, places some tuna in it and holds it open along the side
of the crawl space. Gradually, Kitzka creeps up to it, eyes the
tuna warily and goes halfway inside the trap. Kuzi very quietly
maneuvers his gloved right hand into the crawl space behind
Kitzka and grabs her tail. Kitzka fights and yowls like crazy as
Kuzi tries to get a glove onto his other hand so he can subdue
the cat without getting his hands scratched to pieces. Kitzka,
however, breaks loose.
"Ay-y-y-y-y," groans everyone involved. "I don't believe it,"
says Kuzi. "I was a second away."
Kitzka retreats under the container, and with people still at
her, she scampers out and hides under a parked car. Kuzi heads
out to his van. He comes back with the blowpipe that shoots
tranquilizing darts. He goes up to the end of the car nearest
Kitzka and tells Yitzhaki to stand at the other end. "Talk to
her, Hanna," he says, placing a dart in the mouth of the
blowpipe. This has been going on for nearly two hours, and he
figures Kitzka is about at her wits' end.
As a boy growing up in a Tel Aviv apartment, Kuzi didn't have
pets; his parents wouldn't let him. But he regularly brought
home wounded cats, puppies and doves and nursed them back to
health, keeping them under his bed for a week or two until they
were strong enough to return to the streets. One day he came
home from school and found that the puppy he was caring for was
gone - his parents had thrown it out. "I turned the house upside
down, I tore up the furniture," he recalls. "After that they
realized they'd gone too far, and they didn't do it again."
In his parents' home he ate meat, fish and dairy products,
but couldn't bear to eat any food that looked like it had once
been alive, only things like schnitzel or meatballs. His
epiphany came one night when he was lying in bed, and he doesn't
know if it was a dream or a vision but he saw "a green valley.
The valley began filling up with white animals - white cows,
white chickens, white ducks, white turkeys, until the whole
valley was covered in white. And then it all turned red, and I
snapped back to reality and I was really shaken up. After awhile
I calmed down and went to sleep, and I dreamed the same exact
thing, and I woke up again in a panic. But this time I realized
what I'd seen - it was the animals, the innocent animals, whose
blood I'd been drinking all my life."
He doesn't remember how old he was, but he says that dream,
or vision, changed his life. Since then he hasn't eaten any
animal products. "But I still feel remorse for all the animals I
ate before. I can't get rid of this feeling, and I don't want
to," he says.
His other passion as a boy was sports, and he joined the IDF
as an instructor of krav maga, rappelling and other
skills, then trained to join a special combat medics' unit
assigned to the West Bank. "Everything I'm doing now to rescue
animals, I started out doing in the army. I saved soldiers'
lives. I learned to improvise under pressure, to overcome fear
in dangerous situations. Being in the army was a gift from God."
POLITICALLY, HE'S right-wing, a Land of Israel loyalist -
"orange," like the bracelet he wears and the ribbon that hangs
from his rearview mirror. He refers to the disengagement from
Gush Katif and northern Samaria as the "expulsion." Along with a
group of volunteer animal rescuers, he was in the middle of it.
Rescued puppies get a second chance as
Israeli animal rights activist Avi Kuzi puts them in his van August 21, 2005
in the evacuated Gadid settlement in the Gaza Strip. Humane society
volunteers are searching for the hundreds of pets and farm animals that have
been left behind in the past week as Israel rushed to complete its
disengagement plan with the eviction of thousands of settlers from the Gaza
Photo: David Silverman/Getty Images,
Aug 21, 2005.
"We rescued about 450 cats and a few dozen dogs from the
rubble," he says, looking at the photos. "I lost nearly 20
kilos. We were going in day after day, working from five in the
morning until midnight. We didn't violate the law - we had entry
permits from the IDF. It was very hard for me to concentrate on
my work while all this was going on. But we stayed there
rescuing animals basically until the army closed the gates."
His cellphone rings. It's a moshavnik whose dog has gone
missing. After getting some basic details, Kuzi asks if
"somebody doesn't like dogs where you live." Hearing the reply,
he says, "Then that's our lead." According to the owner, the dog
used to sniff around a food processing company on the moshav,
and the head of the company threatened to poison him. "The guy
probably snatched the dog, put it in his car, drove off and
dumped him somewhere," Kuzi says.
He tells the man that he receives constant information about
missing pets, and that for NIS 350, he'll open a file on his dog
and go after the ones he hears about that match its description.
"If I return your dog to you, it's another NIS 350, but I give
that as a reward to whoever reported seeing him. This is my
profession, but I'm not in it just for the money," he tells the
Kuzi makes a living at it. He gets referrals from animal
welfare organizations and local agencies. He does a lot of
rescues for free, but also has contracts with the Environmental
Protection Ministry and Israel Police, the latter employing him
as its consultant on animal abuse cases. Pulling out a batch of
police reports, he says that since 1996 he's been going out with
the police on about 10 to 20 complaints a year, his job being to
determine the cause of the animal's injury or death. He's seen
I ask if he ever confronts the suspects in these cases face
to face. "I've seen a lot of these men, but I always go out
there with the police. If I was by myself with one, I'd tear him
apart. There's no way he'd walk out alive."
Before finding his calling, Kuzi traveled a lot and worked as
an artist, an interior decorator and a sports instructor. In
1994 he stopped into the Let the Animals Live office in Tel Aviv
to get a bumper sticker, and started doing some volunteer work,
which led to a job offer to start up the organization's rescue
operations. He did that for a little over a year until a new
boss came in with whom he didn't get along, and he quit. "For
months afterward I was in a depression," he says. The depression
ended when he decided to go on his own, rescuing the animals
that nobody else could or would.
He never formally studied animal husbandry or zoology or
veterinary medicine; his understanding of animals, he says,
comes from God-given empathy and intuition. "Where do you study
how to get a monkey down from the top of a eucalyptus tree?"
His rescue skills are also part intuition. "You get into
situations where you have to improvise all kinds of ways to get
to the animal, you have to build tools out of what you've got,
out of what you can find."
During his thousands of rescues, at times dangling from a
rappelling rig high above the ground, he's never been seriously
injured. "I'm very professional. I focus completely on what I
have to do, because there are situations where if I lose
concentration and make a mistake, I'm dead."
ONE PARTICULARLY scary rescue took place a couple of years
ago in the Arab village of Jatt, where a cat had fallen 20
meters down a sewage hole being dug at a construction site. A
construction worker threw food down to the cat for days and
called all sorts of authorities to come rescue it, but none
would. Finally, he got to Kuzi through Let the Animals Live.
"It was this real narrow hole," he recalls. "I started
rappelling down, and at about three meters, my body's telling me
that this is too dangerous. If I go all the way down and
something goes wrong, say a rock falls and hits me in the head
and knocks me out, I'll never get out of there."
So he came back up to the surface and tried to reach the cat
with poles and lassos, but the hole was too deep. "I said I'm
not going home without this cat," he continues, "so I went back
down and just willed my mind to be still until my feet touched
A photo in his album showed him standing at the building site
next to the concerned construction worker, who was grinning
widely as Kuzi held a little gray-and-white cat in his arms.
At Abarbanel, Kuzi is inching up to Kitzka's hiding place
under the car so he can get a clear shot at her hindquarters
with a tranquilizer dart. Unfortunately, the black cat that had
attacked her before picks that moment to trot by, and Kitzka
gets scared and runs out. Yitzhaki grabs at her, misses, and
Kitzka climbs up the high concrete wall separating Abarbanel
from a row of tenement backyards. The cat starts walking along
the ledge. Yitzhaki is worried she's going to jump over and be
lost for good to her Holocaust survivor patients. Kuzi tells the
social worker that's very unlikely.
"She's been over there before and come back, she's not going
to climb over a wall to anyplace she hasn't been before," he
says. Nevertheless, he swings himself atop the three-meter wall
and walks along the ledge to see where the cat might have gone.
Seeing no trace, he jumps back down.
"I think she needs to be left on her own for awhile, she's
been through a big ordeal, and I think we've put enough pressure
on her for now," he tells Yitzhaki. He says that if Kitzka
doesn't return in a few days, he'll come back, find her and take
her to the vet for her leg.
Thanking him, Yitzhaki puts a couple of bills in his hand, he
thanks her and heads home.
Three days later, Yitzhaki still hasn't seen the cat. "This
is terrible. We should have caught her. We'll probably never get
her back now," she says.
The next day, she sees Kitzka. "I fed her, petted her, she
was very affectionate. I picked her up, put her in a cage and
took her to the vet. She's got a dislocated leg and is going to
have to have surgery, but the vet says she'll be all right,"
says the social worker.
"I knew the cat would come back," says Kuzi. His job is done.
A lot of people, maybe most, don't understand such
all-consuming devotion to stray cats. As for Kuzi's mission to
wild animals of all kinds that are wounded, disabled and in
danger, it's just uncanny. The bond he has with them seems
supernatural - which is how he himself sees it. "It's not just
that I love animals, it's more than that," he says. "They're
part of my blood. They're an extra sense in my body."
Copyright 1995- 2010 The Jerusalem
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Avi Kuzi has just begun to create his own
Society for the Protection of Animals website. Currently
[3/2010], it consists of a slide presentation, and the following