A few years ago, while I was walking to Carmel Center in Haifa by way of the nature trail in Wadi Lotem, my dog Taffy bolted up into the underbrush.
I heard a commotion and down came a wild boar with Taffy in close pursuit. I started to take a picture when suddenly out came another boar pursuing Taffy in turn. The boar being chased was small. The other one was almost as tall as I am, with huge tusks and it was going after Taffy to kill him! It looked like something out of Brother’s Grimm. Taffy saw what was after him, made a strange yelp, and spurted in a different direction off the path and away from the small boar. The smaller boar then went back into the brush and the huge creature desisted and also disappeared. I have to admit that I was terrified! I don’t know whether I was more afraid of Taffy being killed in front of my eyes or the creature coming after me, but I was so scared that I didn’t get the picture. With hands shaking I walked up the rest of the way and found myself in the middle of Carmel Center. The disconnect made me dizzy – one minute on an adventure from an unabridged fairy tale and the next minute downtown in the midst of shops and cafés.
At the time when my story happened it seemed extraordinary, but wild boars are increasingly common in Haifa. They are often seen walking on the main roads at night. Most of them are moderately sized mothers with their cute striped babies following them, but that huge boar, or one just like it, was seen on several occasions blithely strolling down Derech Hayam. Until yesterday I was sanguine! Live and let live was my attitude. I’ve told my friends and concerned neighbors on numerous occasions that we should be proud to share Haifa with the fascinating wild animals who also live here (courtesy of the undeveloped wadis which serve as natural corridors throughout the city)… but then the unimaginable happened.
Those rotten hogs got into my garden, and instead of just rutting up the soil in the upper area like they usually do, they came down to my beds of wild type Cyclamen (rakafot) and trampled all over them. I’ve babied that flower bed over many years, and they were at the peak of loveliness. (Those pigs better watch out or I’ll make them into pork!)
Wild boars are native to Israel. There is evidence that the Neanderthals who lived in the Amud Caves (see my last blog) ate wild boars as part of their diet. But rakafot (Cyclamen persicum, רקפת מצויה ) are also native. I’ve heard that these flowers and the boars are able to co-exist because the bulbs of cyclamen are not palatable. Perhaps the fact that the boars that came into our garden, didn’t actually eat the bulbs supports this idea, and maybe the flowers will grow again next year, but that’s only a small comfort at this moment.
The wild boar (Sus scrofa) naturally ranges throughout Europe, north to Scandinavia, south to Israel & Northern Africa, and east to Asia. It was hunted to extinction in Britain and then reintroduced. It has been inadvertently introduced into many areas, including North and South America, giving this species one of the widest distribution of any mammal. Boars are particularly partial to Oak forests for the acorns, but one of the main traits that make this species so abundant, even in urban areas, is their flexibility of behavior, habitat, and diet. Boars will eat almost anything and can be serious pests – as can be seen from what they did to my flowers. In many parts of Europe there is a regular hunting season which keeps their populations stable at densities of approximately 5 boar per km2. Perhaps in response to pressure from hunting, boar have moved to different habitats including a large group of wild boar that now live right in the city of Berlin along with the other human inhabitants.
Boar usually weigh from 70 to 110 kg, but there are several records of individuals up to 300 kg. They live in groups called sounders made up of mothers and their young. The mothers are furiously defensive of their young while the males are reported to leave the sounder when they are grown and live on their own. These animals belong to the family Suidae which includes eight different species of pigs including Sus scrofa, and these pigs belong to the order Artiodactyla which means ‘even toed’ in Greek. Thus, the artiodactyl group of animals have cloven hooves or come from ancestors who had cloven hooves. They are a hugely successful and diverse group including all the pigs, most domestic live stock like cattle and sheep, deer, antelope, giraffes, camels, and hippopotamuses. After extensive DNA molecular studies scientists have found that marine mammals (Cetacean) are also part of this group. Some 60 million years ago an ancestor of my wild boar began to live in the sea and gave way to the whales and dolphins.
In Israel there are indirect indications (more frequent sightings, disturbed gardens, and rooted up natural areas) that the population density is increasing. In response the Haifa municipality issued hunting licenses to cull the population, but then quickly suspended them after somebody was hurt (by a hunter not by a boar).
Pigs get a bad rap. In the Tanach (bible) pigs are mentioned a total of six times, never in a positive light. Most animals are not kosher because they don’t meet the criteria of having both cloven hooves and chewing their cud, but pigs because they have cloven hooves but don’t chew their cud are one of four animals (camels, rock-badgers, rabbits, and pigs) that are forbidden by name because they meet one criteria, but not the other. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo postulates that by “pretending” to be kosher these animals are worse than the other animals that are not “trying to hide their impurity” because in addition to being impure they are also hypocrites. While five of the sections in Tanach that mention pigs deal with the prohibition on eating or using them for a sacrifice there is also Proverbs 11:22 “As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman who is without discretion” in this quote, even as a living creature, pigs are regarded unfavorably. It is interesting that there are fewer findings of pig remains in Israelite settlements during the Iron age 1200 BCE – 550 BCE than in the nearby settlements of the Philistines suggesting that the prohibition on eating pig is an ancient part of Judaism.
Probably influenced by the bible, and also by the way that pigs live in captivity, the English language also associates negative traits to pigs. Look up pig in the dictionary and among the definitions will be someone who is greedy or gross, sexist or racist. A person called a swine is considered brutish and contemptible, a person called a hog is gluttonous or filthy. Even the police have been called pigs as an insult.
And yet none of the above has anything to do with the true character of wild boars as living creatures. What I saw, those years ago chasing my dog, was a noble beast protecting its kin. When a weaker member of his clan was under attack this ‘swine’ endangered himself to protect it, but the instant the attack ended he left us unharmed and returned to the brush. Don’t we all hope that we would act, thus, with courage and restraint to defend our family? I feel privileged to have seen “one of the lords of life”1 living with us right here in Haifa.
1 from D. H. Lawrence’s poem The Snake