Monday, March 11, 2013

Adventures in Locust Hunting

Last week was not great for this zoo rabbi. One of my hyraxes, named Lorax, escaped, and despite the best efforts of my neighbors and myself to recapture it, our efforts proved fruitless. Then my fruit bat, Batsheva, escaped, and although I managed to recapture her two days later, her experiences left her in bad shape and she expired. And to top it all, I hadn't made it to the South to catch the locusts that had arrived in a plague from Egypt. The article about kosher locusts that I had written for The Times of Israel had been quoted by media outlets all over the world, but I hadn't actually gotten any! My students were begging me for a lecture on kosher locusts, and my chameleons, for whom locusts are a favorite food, were looking at me with accusing eyes (which, protruding from their heads, are particularly unsettling). And the Ministry of Agriculture reported that they had successfully fumigated all the locusts that had flown in from Egypt. Which was wonderful news for the farmers and the economy - let's not lose perspective here! - but not for my chameleons, my students and me.

Then, right before Shabbos, there was a report that a new swarm had flown in. And on Shabbos, a stranger came over to me, and introduced himself as Moishe from Australia. He said that he was part of a group of fans of this website, and he wanted to know where he could hunt for locusts. (He also excitedly told me about the huge "mozzie" that he had just seen; after some bewilderment, I figured out that this was Australian talk for a mosquito.)

And so, late last night, we planned our expedition. The latest reports indicated that a small swarm had settled in Nachal Lavan, near the Egyptian border. The Ministry of Agriculture were sending planes on Sunday morning to fumigate them. We would have to make an early start - partly because locusts can best be captured when they are dormant from the cold of night, and partly in order to get them before they were sprayed with pesticide!

At five o'clock this morning, Moishe and I hit the road. It's possible to drive incredibly fast at that hour, even while simultaneously scanning the road for hedgehogs and hyenas. There's also a new, wide bypass road that circumvents Be'er Sheva, speeding up the journey considerably. As we entered the Negev desert, a number of signs on the road warned of danger from camels crossing the road - their bodies are so high from the ground that if you hit one, it comes straight through the windshield. We didn't have that experience, which was fortunate for us, and also for the camels. The desert itself was vast and bare, with herds of oryx conspicuously failing to thunder across it. We made excellent time, but the sun had already come up, and it was going to be close. I didn't yet realize just how close it was going to be.

I found the rough road leading off the highway towards Nachal Lavan, and we began to travel down it. A large four-wheel drive vehicle was coming in the other direction, and we drove past it. In the rear-view mirror, I saw it turn around. I pulled over to the side as it drew up next to my car.

"Hi," I said brightly. "We're looking for locusts! Do you know where we can find them?"

The man in the other car, who was apparently from the Ministry of Agriculture, was not happy with me. "You have to leave this area right now," he said. "In two minutes, it's going to be fumigated." "Okay," I said in disappointment. And he drove off.

This was very upsetting. But meanwhile, Moishe from Australia had gotten out of the car, and he was peering into the bushes that were a short distance from us. "Crikey," he said, or some such Australian expression of astonishment, "This bush is full of locusts! Strewth! Blimey!" Or words to that effect.

Pesticides or not, I wasn't going to miss this opportunity. I grabbed a collecting box from the back of the car and made my way to the bush. There were locusts all over the branches!

At that point, two things happened simultaneously. I heard a voice thundering, "GET BACK IN THE CAR NOW!" It sounded like the Lord Himself speaking from the Heavens, but it was in fact the Ministry official, who had returned to check that I had left, and was shouting from a loudspeaker mounted on his truck. Then, at the same moment, there was a noise like a hundred thousand beating wings. I looked up, but instead of seeing a black cloud of locusts, I saw two planes swooping towards me, spraying pesticides as they approached.

It was like a scene from a movie. Moishe and I grabbed some locusts in our hands, and with fistfuls of bugs, we ran back to the car and slammed the doors closed. The Ministry Man was shouting something about my being fined, the planes swooped overhead, and I stepped on the gas and raced out of there. Being killed by pesticides would not be a great way to go. Can you imagine the headlines? "Zoo Rabbi Fumigated in Locust-Hunting Expedition. 'He Really Bugged Us,' Say Opponents."

Well, that was the end of our success for this morning. We drove around further, but we found nothing other than countless more locusts that had already been fumigated. They were lying on the ground, twitching, and I took a few dozen; I can't even feed them to my reptiles, but perhaps when they stop twitching, I can pin them to a card and sell them as souvenirs for the Jewish Museum of Natural History. We had managed to collect a total of seven live, unfumigated locusts in the approximately five seconds of time that we had, and I'm hoping to start a breeding colony. Here's to happy times all round!

Picture is for display purposes only. Do not eat fumigated locusts!


Old jewish grammar guy said...

A good word of advice: if you want your enyclopedia to sell, you must not establish the identity of your animals with pre-conceived ideas.
You must study with an open mind.
I write this to you as i have been following the debate with Ohsie and Coffer/Betech on a site called slifkin.opinion/blogspot.
Look, between me and you, you have been affected big time by the ban on your books. You seem to be wanting to enact revenge by showing the haredi world that scripture/talmud are not always correct. Thats fine with me but your proofs must be solid. In this rabbit debate anyone with an open mind who has read Betech/Coffers sources will conclude that your position is weak to say the least.
C'mon Natan, remember the lessons that Phaivish used to instill in us

Rabbi Dr. Natan Slifkin said...

Actually, "everyone with an open mind" thinks that Betech's position has no basis (and usually considers him a lunatic). It's only people with a closed mind, who are convinced that Great Rabbis can't be wrong, that think that the shafan is the rabbit.

Or do you have evidence to challenge the agreement of zooarcheologists that there were no rabbits in Israel?

Please direct any future comments on this topic to the relevant post, e.g.