Uriel Sinai has never considered himself an animal lover.
Yet when the Israeli photojournalist — recognized for his work covering war and crises around the globe — went to the Israeli Wildlife Hospital, his curiosity was piqued.
“Many years ago, I was working for an Israel newspaper and there was (a story about) a bunch of birds drinking polluted water,” Sinai said. The birds were treated at the wildlife hospital, Israel’s only one, and it was an experience Sinai never forgot. “I always remembered that place and wanted to go back.”
Sinai spent about one year, in 2012 and 2013, going back and forth to the hospital in Ramat Gan.
“Whenever I had time between news, I jumped over,” Sinai said. “Every day you go, there’s something going on. It’s always chaotic.”
With patients such as tigers, elephants, hyenas and pelicans, the chaos is understandable. The hospital, which works in conjunction with the zoo in Ramat Gan, treats around 2,000 animals a year.
Birds make up a majority of the animals the hospital staff treats. Many are injured as they migrate from Europe to Africa.
“One time I was there, the inspectors came with a pickup truck full of pelicans,” Sinai said.
In one of Sinai’s photos, two pelicans stand in the middle of a treatment room with towels over their heads.
“Once the animals are inside, they were just captured and they’re traumatized, they’ll go bananas,” Sinai said. “Once you put a towel over their heads, they’ll just stop like everything’s OK. It’s a cool moment.”
Despite operating on a low budget, the staff at the hospital will try anything to heal their animals, like treating a 14-year-old Sumatran tiger with acupuncture after failed attempts to relieve his chronic ear infection.
“Another procedure that is kind of amazing,” Sinai said, “is if a bird dies, they’ll keep the feathers and transplant those feathers to a wounded bird. Then the bird can fly.”
As in any hospital, death is inevitable. Sinai is acutely aware of the challenges of capturing those moments when an animal is lost.
The staff will “go through a surgery, and they try everything,” Sinai said. “You have these moments when everything slows down and gets quiet, and you have to be sensitive enough to know when to take the picture. You have to be careful with their feelings and the way these workers feel about the animals.”
Although not every animal survives, there are still moments to celebrate. Sinai documented the lengthy rehabilitation of a hyena that had been caught in a trap and needed several surgeries. Once the hyena recovered, Sinai was there to watch it run back into the wild.
While talking about these experiences, Sinai stops to reflect.
“You ask me if I love animals, and I’m not sure,” he said. “But I think of all these moments, and I guess so.”
- Allison Love, CNN