Is urban nature a good thing? A colleague of mine recently raised this question, citing correctly that many people fear wild critters, like the wild pigs in the city of Haifa, for example. Wild pigs roam our neighborhoods, and – while I’m personally enchanted by them – most of my neighbors are frightened by them or find them to be a nuisance. The pigs, meanwhile, seem rather ambivalent about humans.
Haifa is blessed with large patches and strips of urban nature: remnants of the original trees and shrubs of the Mediterranean woodland that dominated Mount Carmel prior to intensive urban development. Deep in the canyons around my home, wild pigs roam, feeding on bulbous plants, bugs, lizards and mushrooms. When those aren’t available, or when the scent of garbage is too inviting, the pigs wander into our neighborhood looking for food. More than once, our dog has woken the family in the middle of the night to alert us that pigs were burrowing into my compost pit again.
At first thought, it’s reasonable that people are afraid of wild pigs. They’re big. They’re fast. They’re not beautiful to many people. But is our fear based on real danger? While many of my friends and neighbors have seen pigs wandering the city – none of them have been attacked. In fact, a pig will rarely attack so long as it has a place to run away, although a cornered or wounded pig may be a dangerous pig. There have been only a few isolated cases where people were attacked by pigs in Israel – in each case the background story is either 1) an injured and cornered pig; 2) pigs that wandered into the city following widespread habitat destruction (as when residential neighborhoods in Haifa were suddenly inundated with pigs fleeing construction sites of the Carmel Tunnels) or; 3) when pigs converged on a town due to abundant garbage in public places.
But the overwhelming majority of human-pig interactions end peacefully. Should you see a pig, keep your distance, avoid panic, don’t come between piglets and their parents, and enjoy the view and wait for the pigs to move on.
In contrast to the pig, once upon a time there were bona fide dangerous animals that wandered the land of Israel – bears, lions, and crocodiles for example. They are gone now – eliminated by human hunters around a century ago (the lion long before). Large carnivores would have traditionally kept the wild pig population in check. There are still some snakes left in Israel that are dangerous, and scorpions, and some other small but potentially nasty critters. But one can and should take some proper preventive steps to minimize the actual danger they pose. Wearing closed-toed shoes when hiking and never putting your hands somewhere you can’t see, for example, are good precautions. Statistically, these critters are also not major causes of injury or death.
People, on the other hand, are a real threat to the wild pigs and thousands of other creatures. Four thousand wild pigs are legally hunted in Israel each year, and more are poisoned in programs to prevent pigs from damaging agricultural crops. While pigs are not endangered, humans are responsible for the elimination of thousands of other species, driving species to extinction at 100 to 1000 times the natural rate. The loss of those species is the loss of genetic diversity, potential benefits like pollination and pest control, and the loss of beauty and wonder. Among the species that are left, World Wildlife Fund research suggests that population numbers have been reduced by fifty percent in the last forty years. Concurrently, the human population has grown from four billion to more than seven billion.
Another irony is that animals like the wild pig are in our neighborhoods in part because we are paving more and more of their habitat. In Haifa, while their forested homes are being rapidly developed, they seek food in our well-watered gardens and copious amounts of garbage. Globally, humans use 40 percent of all of earth’s terrestrial land cover for agriculture and pasture, with additional land used for cities, mining, and timber production. Humans are unrivaled in expanding their territory, and the millions of other species are left with the remains, or must try to share what the humans are using. Pigs, like pigeons and house sparrows, foxes, squirrels and many insects, are particularly adept at adapting to human-altered environments. Many other species are less fortunate.
The actual threats to our own safety are not wild animals but us. Traffic accidents, suicide, murder, and cancer, noted a recently released Israel Health Ministry study released this week, all pose greater threats to human well-being than do wild animals, who don’t even make the list. If people were as scared of the wild automobile (which killed more than 300 people in Israel in 2013 and injured thousands more) or cancer-causing air pollutants and pesticides as much as they were of wild pigs, then perhaps those very real threats would be promptly resolved.
Two weeks ago in Haifa I found a mother and her daughter standing on a sidewalk holding each other and pointing. They wanted to proceed down the street, but there were three pigs enjoying a garbage meal just ahead of them. They asked if I could help. I walked forward with them clapping to the pigs, who looked up at us, turned and scuttled away. The pigs weren’t looking for trouble. I just hope the little girl felt, aside from fear, just a little bit of wonder that despite our efforts to distance ourselves from the threat, real and imagined, of wild animals, there are still interesting and untamed animals – including wild pigs, jackals, hyrax, porcupine and mongooses – roaming in and around the streets of Haifa. A source of interest and wonder may in fact be one of the most important benefits of urban nature.