Israeli landowners sued over pet cemetery scandal

Beit Yanai pet cemetery Photo: PR

The bizarre saga of Moshav Beit Yanai's illegal pet cemetery sheds light on the difficulty of burying pets in Israel.

26 pet owners whose pets were buried in a pet cemetery in Moshav Beit Yanai between Tel Aviv and Haifa have filed a NIS 415,000 lawsuit against the leaseholders on the farm where the pet cemetery operates and against the agricultural cooperative there. The owners of the deceased pets discovered that access to the graves had been blocked and activity in the pet cemetery discontinued. The cemetery's operation was illegal and lacked approval from Israel Land Authority (ILA).

ILA and the Local Planning and Building Commission instituted legal proceedings against the leaseholders, who were convicted in July 2013 of illegal construction on the lots they leased and of making commercial use of agricultural land in contravention of the lease. The court fined the leaseholders NIS 40,000 and issued demolition orders against the illegal use of the land.

In a December 2014 court-approved compromise, the parties agreed that the leaseholders would discontinue their commercial activity and demolish the illegal building within 10 months. The leaseholders demolished some of the buildings and took action to obtain a building permit to legalize the other parts.

ILA argued that a field visit by its inspector in January 2017 showed that while commercial use of the land had been discontinued and external markings of the pet cemetery had been removed, the animals had not been removed from the graves. ILA demanded removal of the animals' bodies from the land and that the animals' owners be notified and barred from visiting the site. The state made removal of the animals from the graves a condition for signing the request for a building permit for buildings that the leaseholders sought to legalize.

Through Adv. Efraim Karnon, the leaseholders argued that a fruit tree had been planted above every buried animal. Removing the animals' bones will require the uprooting of dozens of mature fruit-bearing trees. They asserted that uprooting the trees was forbidden without approval from the forest commissioner and that removal of the animals' remains was forbidden without permission from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development Veterinary Services Administration.

Petah Tikva Magistrates Court Judge Nachum Sternlicht ruled that the animals' remains could not be removed from the earth, and such removal could not be made a condition for signing the leaseholders' request for a building permit.

Sternlicht also took into account an expert opinion by Dr. Muki Sheffer presented by the leaseholders stating that leading the remains in the earth was not causing damage to the land or the groundwater. Sternlicht ordered ILA to sign the building permit for one of the buildings that the leaseholders were seeking to legalize.

ILA appealed the ruling to the Lod District Court, which dismissed the appeal and upheld Sternlicht's ruling that the pets' bones and the trees planted above them would remain in place. Adv. Efraim Karnon and Orit Dan represented the pet cemetery operators in the appeal.

The problems of the Moshav Beit Yanai leaseholders are not over, however, because 26 owners of pets buried in the cemetery have filed a lawsuit alleging that the leaseholders falsely represented themselves as the owners of Gan Machmad pet cemetery. The Beit Yanai agricultural cooperative, which received the land from ILA and leased it to the cemetery operators, was also named as a respondent in the lawsuit. The pet owners are alleging that the cooperative was aware of the misrepresentation by the cemetery operators and was involved in collecting the payment.

NIS 15,000 in compensation for a dog

The plaintiffs are complaining that the leaseholders and the cooperative had known for many years that they had no permit to market or sell burial plots for pets, and nevertheless illegally sold graves to the plaintiffs after signing a contract stating that the place was legal and would preserve their dear animals for many years. The plaintiffs continued visiting their animals' graves and invested a great deal of money in the preservation of the burial plots.

In their lawsuit filed at the Rishon Lezion Magistrates Court through Adv. Sivan Zevulun-Neve and Adv. Beno Glikman, the plaintiffs allege that on the basis of the representation made to them they decided to bury their pets after their deaths.

The lawsuit indicates that most of the plaintiffs paid between NIS 1,000 and NIS 1,900 for a burial plot. In one case, NIS 2,400 was paid for the burial of a dog and the future burial of another dog. The statement of claim also alleges that in addition to the burial services, the respondents also supplied gravestones and arrangements and fencing of the burial plots for additional payment for pet owners asking for this service. The lawsuit states that owners kept the animals as pets for many years and regarded them as part of the family.

According to the statement of claim, only in early 2017 did the plaintiffs discover that the Gan Machmad pet cemetery was illegal from the beginning. The plaintiffs assert that the leaseholders acted negligently and concealed important information - that they had no permit or approval for burying animals. As a result, the plaintiffs now have no access to the animals' graves and are unable to find where they are buried. The plaintiffs mention that in recent years, an attitude recognizing animals as possessing basic rights has been making headway, as reflected in various rulings.

The plaintiffs are demanding that the leaseholders and the Beit Yanai cooperative reimburse them for the money they paid and pay them NIS 15,000 for a plaintiff who buried one animal and NIS 20,000 for a plaintiff who buried two dogs in compensation for anguish caused them by the fraud committed by the respondents. "The respondents knew in advance that they were absolutely forbidden to bury animals in Beit Yanai, and nevertheless chose to continue defrauding the plaintiffs and dozens of others," the statement of claim reads. "No compensation paid to the plaintiffs can undo the damage."

The leaseholders, who have not yet filed a statement of defense, told "Globes" briefly that they deny the plaintiffs' claims, including any misrepresentation whatsoever to the animals' owners, did not purport to sell burial plots, and provided no gravestone or accompanying services. They described the lawsuit as a case of pique.

Where are animals buried?

"The law in Israel requires the local authorities to allocate land for burying animals classified as a domesticated animal, dog, or cat," says Karnon. "A survey we conducted, however, did not find a single local authority that had allocated land for an animal cemetery. The law requires anyone keeping an animal to do one of the following actions within 24 hours of an animal's death: bury or burn the corpse in a place determined by the local authority, bring it to a collection point, or bring it to an animal wastage business using means of transport stipulated by the local authority. As far as we were able to discover, however, not a single local authority has set aside a place for burying animals. We found only one animal wastage business - in the Jezreel Valley."

Karnon adds that although courts have ruled more than once that pets should be regarded as almost one of the family, as is also stated by the Veterinary Service on the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development website, people wishing to bury their beloved pets legally find themselves with no solution. "In this situation, it is no wonder that this vacuum is being filled by private initiatives," Karnon says. "If the local authorities allocate such land, they will obviously have to stipulate that burial will not be under a gravestone, which will leave land exposed. Such cemeteries will require a license only if the burial is under a fruit or ornamental tree. This will achieve many environmental goals, such as absorbing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, emitting oxygen, providing a green view in the community, an esthetic solution for animal burial, and will also create fruit-bearing orchards."

The Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development said, "Handling animal corpses is the veterinary doctor's responsibility. The veterinary of the local authority can offer animal owners burial in landfills approved for receiving animals' bodies dispersed over Israel, an elimination facility, or private cemeteries designed for animal burial.

"Some local authorities offer to remove the animal itself and move it to an elimination facility or for burial."

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 22, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

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Beit Yanai pet cemetery Photo: PR
Beit Yanai pet cemetery Photo: PR
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