Israeli zoologist offers stories of the Mideast’s ‘wild’ side

Avinoam Lourie

By Cate Marquis, Special to the Jewish Light

Why would a jackal be in an oven? Could you really lose a snake on a plane?

Animal fans of all ages can find out, and hear many more animal adventures when Israeli zoologist and author Avinoam Lourie, former head of the Haifa Zoo and Director of Israel’s Wildlife Conservation Department, visits the St. Louis Zoo this weekend.

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Lourie will join St. Louis Zoo director Jeffrey Bonner in sharing tales of animals and adventures, including some from Lourie’s new book “A Bear in My Bed and a Jackal in My Oven: Adventures of an Israeli Wildlife Zoologist.”

Lourie also served as director of the Carmel Hai Bar Nature Reserve and helped protect Israeli endangered species. The zoologist is an expert storyteller, with warm, witty and exciting tales, who often works with children in Israel. We had a chance to hear some of those stories and much more during a recent phone interview.

It’s easy to see why a bear might want to be in a bed but why would a jackal be in your oven?

The jackal was found very close to the reserve, near a mountain. His mother was struck by a car. I took him under my coat-it was winter and I was not sure he would survive the cold-and I went home. I put him in a kind of stove we call a Shabbat stove, with a very low temperature. But I forget to tell my wife before I went back to the reserve to get some good milk for him. She came and tried to make lunch and opened the stove and, well, she heard “meow.” I was nearly divorced because of it. But it’s OK.

How did your interest in animals start?

I was an only child and when I was young, I think I didn’t have many friends and was drawn to the animals I saw in the fields. I was talking to the scorpions I saw, to the spiders and to the lizards. Maybe because of this, I am a zoologist.

Did you ever get in trouble with your parents for all your animals?

Once a spider bit my mother during the night. I brought it home in a jar, but it got out because the jar was not closed right. Most of my collection was thrown out of the house. But she forgave me later.

Don’t you have a story about when you were 12 and rode your bike with one hand while holding a snake in the other to deliver it to a research lab?

Not just a snake-one of the most poisonous snakes in the country, a Palestinian viper. They had tried, in Jerusalem, to produce an anti-venom and they needed a lot of venom. I was one of the collectors of this animal. I was young and stupid to go with such a snake on a bicycle but nobody knew about it. So I got there by miracle with no accident. It was a stupid thing to do.

I heard your animal adventures included a story in Iran. Can you tell me about that?

We succeeded to get, in the last days of the Shah, some fallow deer. They were considered extinct to the world but were found in Iran. We had given the Shah of Iran a present, another animal that we have in Israel, and he proceeded to give us this fallow deer which was very, very, very rare-and still is now. We have about 400 of them, the largest number in the world now. And many of them are roaming free in the mountains, not far from Jerusalem.

Have you been able to help other endangered species in Israel?

We have succeeded to bring back some animals, with some very interesting stories. Now many of them are released back to nature, which for a small country with not too much money is quite a big success. That includes big animals like aurochs, the fallow deer I mentioned, roe deer and some kinds of birds.

What about your work with telling stories to at-risk children, and establishing “animal schoolyards” for children to learn more about nature and animals?

Since retiring, that is what I do now as a volunteer. I work with children who have a lot of mental and physical problems. It is much easier for them to make a connection with a rabbit or a dog than a psychiatrist because there are no white coats and no asking 20 questions. Nature can be miraculous and sometimes you need to experience something miraculous in life.

Do you have a favorite animal?

I can tell you there is an animal I like very much and which I work with a lot: scorpions.

Why scorpions?

Because they are mysterious, they are quiet and they have an interesting sex life. And they are beautifully ugly.