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In Haifa, Israel, Wild Boars Encroach on Human Turf

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HAIFA, Israel — The wild pigs of Haifa might not fly, but they seem to do almost everything else.

The boars snooze in people’s paddling pools. They snuffle across the lawns. They kick residents’ soccer balls and play with their dogs. They saunter down the sidewalks and sleep in the streets. Some eat from the hands of humans, and they all eat from the trash.

The wild boars of Haifa, in short, are no longer particularly wild.

Once largely confined to the many ravines that slice through this hilly port city on the Mediterranean, the boars have become increasingly carefree in recent years and now regularly venture into built-up areas, undeterred by their human neighbors.

“It became like an everyday thing,” said Eugene Notkov, 35, a chef who lets his dog play with the boars that putter around the local parks. “They’re a part of our city,” he added. Bumping into one is “like seeing a squirrel.”

In many countries, animal sightings increased after the pandemic began and people deserted public spaces. But Haifa’s boars started their conquest well before the coronavirus wrought its havoc. In 2019, residents reported 1,328 boar sightings to the city authorities — almost 40 percent more than the 2015 total. The Haifa City Council declined to release data for 2020.

The growing presence of the boars has sparked a rumpus in local discourse. For some, the boars are a menace, and the Council is to blame for their continued presence. For others, they are a charming addition to an already unusual place.

Israel’s third-largest city, with a population of nearly 300,000, Haifa has an eccentric topography. Built on the side of Mount Carmel, the city in Israel’s north is divided between districts that line a flat waterfront and neighborhoods that straddle a rugged mountaintop. Ravines, or “wadis,” run through the city, creating a rare blend of urban and natural (albeit one often pockmarked by industrial waste).

“It’s a secret garden,” said Rona Shahar, a painter and Haifa resident. “And there is a magical side to it.”

Haifa’s ethnic makeup is also atypical: It is one of the few Israeli cities where Jews live alongside significant numbers of Palestinian citizens of Israel, who form about 10 percent of the city’s population. It is the home of the leader of the country’s largest Arab political party, and its residents elected a female mayor before Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

“I wish we could all in Israel learn to live like they live in Haifa,” said Edna Gorney, a poet, ecologist and lecturer at the University of Haifa. “It’s an example of coexistence — not only between Arabs and Jews, but also between humans and wildlife.”

For dreamers like Ms. Shahar, the painter, it feels almost unsurprising that boars should live cheek by jowl with Haifa’s humans. After moving to Haifa in 2008, she found a city that lends itself to the surreal, and began a series of paintings and drawings that explored what it would look like if the city were overrun with friendly tigers.

“I just had no idea there would actually be wild animals roaming the streets,” said Ms. Shahar. “It seems appropriate in some way.”

No one quite agrees why the boars entered Haifa in such high numbers. Some wonder if a huge fire in and around Haifa in 2016 destroyed the boars’ natural habitat, forcing them into the city. Others claim it was the mayor’s decision in 2019 to stop shooting the boars.

But the statistics show that the boars’ forays were already rising by the time the shooting stopped. And ecologists say the boars still have plenty of food in the nearby ravines outside Haifa. The real reason for their presence in the city, said the Haifa Council’s in-house ecologist, is that humans are leaving too much food waste in places that are even more accessible than the ravines.

“It’s easy to find food in the city,” said Yael Ozek, the municipal ecologist. “And they don’t have to forage for it for a long time.”

Whatever the cause of their presence, the boars have sparked real fury among some parts of the population. For every Rona Shahar, there is someone who sees the boars as a danger and a pest.

In their quest for food, boars regularly gobble the grass on people’s lawns, or rifle chaotically through their trash cans. And while many boars have become almost tame in their behavior around humans, eating food from residents’ hands, some are still highly aggressive, particularly when with their young. In January, a boar bit a pensioner in the leg — the day after another boar made off with a schoolgirl’s pink school bag.

“They are controlling the streets now,” said Assaf Schechter, 43, a port worker confronted recently by a boar on his porch. “It’s a very crazy situation.”

Mr. Schechter’s teenage daughter sometimes calls him for moral support after late-night boar encounters, he said. His mother-in-law, Esti Shulman, has taken to carrying a stick in the street, after being run off the sidewalk recently by a pack of boars.

“They should collect the little ones and put them in a park,” said Ms. Shulman, 75, a retired bookkeeper. “Or take them to the Golan Heights! Or shoot them!”

This ire has been increasingly aimed at the mayor, Einat Kalisch-Rotem. At a recent public meeting convened by the Council to discuss the boar issue, hundreds of residents showed up to harangue her for three hours.

“This past Saturday,” said an Sarit Golan-Steinberg, a lawyer and Council member, “my husband came running back home because he ran into a 150-kilogram female boar!”

“Tell me,” Ms. Golan-Steinberg demanded, “do you think this is funny?”

Ms. Kalisch-Rotem has hardly been idle in the face of these powerfully built animals, which can top 300 pounds. Under her watch, the Council has fenced off parks and ravines, to choke the access points to the city — and fixed chains to trash cans, to limit access to food waste. But since the municipality has declined to release more recent data about the presence of boars, it is unclear whether these strategies have had an effect.

In the meantime, amateurs have attempted their own solutions. One group tried to build an app that could deter boars with subsonic sound waves. Others discussed leaving lion dung near boar hot spots, in the hope that the smell would deter the pigs.

Prof. Dan Malkinson, a wildlife expert at the University of Haifa, investigated whether boars could be repelled with urine, conducting his own informal experiment beside the lemon and loquat trees at the bottom of a friend’s garden.

“At night, I would go out, after a drink, and recycle the beer,” Professor Malkinson said. “It’s two for the price of one — you fertilize the trees and you try to deter the wild boars.”

Sadly, however, the boars kept coming.

But Professor Malkinson, who has researched the boars for years, and even tracked them with collars fitted with GPS devices, wonders if the boars are really Haifa’s biggest problem.

The tension that most needs a solution, he said, is not between boars and humans — but among the humans themselves.

“Essentially the conflict is between those who oppose having wild boars in the city and those who don’t,” Professor Malkinson said.

“It’s not an ecological problem,” he added. “It’s a social problem.”

Myra Noveck and Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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