Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Mysterious Bear-Beast of Afula

The last few posts were pretty heavy, so here's something a little lighter. At least, it's light in retrospect; while it was happening, I feared that something inexplicable was going on with the universe.

Earlier today, I was involved in an online discussion about a photo of a "dead deer" found outside Ramat Beit Shemesh. I pointed out that the animal had been misidentified and it was actually a gazelle. Meanwhile, someone mentioned that their son had just come back from a hike near Afula, where he saw a dead bear in a sack by the side of the road.

A dead bear?!

This was clearly impossible. The last bear in Israel was killed 101 years ago, in 1917. There are a few bears in zoos, but they wouldn't be lying in a sack by the side of the road.

But the person insisted that this was for real. He added that his son had taken a photo of the bear, and he shared it:

As soon as I saw the photo, I laughed. That was no bear! Although it had certain similarities to a bear. It was obviously the animal that was called arktomys, "bear-mouse" in Latin, due to its rough similarities to a bear. It was a hyrax, the very animal mentioned in last week's Torah reading (or this week's, if you live outside of Israel).

There was no mistaking it. Brown fur. Pointy snout. Very small ears. Short, stocky legs. The hyrax is the only animal in Israel that matches all those characteristics. My wife saw the picture, and said, "Oh, that's a hyrax." Even my youngest child, age five, who wandered into my office and saw the photo, instantly said "Hey, look at that hyrax!" I pointed this out to the people in the online discussion.

Before we proceed, here are some photos of hyraxes:

You see? Pointy nose, small ears, short stocky legs. All distinctive features of a hyrax.

"But the animal in the photo is huge!" said someone. "That's a bag used in construction, and they are one cubic meter in size!"

Well, that was impossible. So obviously there must be smaller bags that are of the same style. Sure enough, we consulted someone in construction, and he said that while most bags of that type are a cubic meter, there are some that are smaller.

Case dismissed!

Or so I thought.

Because then someone pointed out the Coca-Cola bottle top.

It's at the bottom right of the picture. And when I noticed it, I was stunned.

Can you see the problem?

A Coca-Cola bottle top is only about an inch wide. That would make the hyrax in this picture absolutely huge! A hyrax is only around eighteen inches in length, maximum twenty, but the one in this picture would be about three or four feet long!

That was impossible. Completely impossible. There are no mutant giant hyraxes. This was Afula, not Dimona.

So what on earth was going on? Was it some sort of optical illusion? Was this a prank? I felt like I was in an episode of The X-Files.

The best guess that I had was that the ground was sloping down to the right in some kind of way that meant that the bottle top was much further away than it looked. I showed it to a colleague at The Biblical Museum of Natural History and he suggested that it was a combination of a rare outsize hyrax together with an optical illusion caused by the slope of the ground near the bottle-top. I decided to send the picture to a friend of mine at the Israel Nature and Parks Authority for his input.

A while later, he got back to me. He said that the picture was indeed very confusing. But after discussing it with several colleagues at the Nature and Parks Authority, he had the answer.

It's a cow.

Now, this answer initially seemed preposterous! Cows don't have pointy noises. Cows don't have short ears. Cows don't have short, stocky legs.

However, if you examine the picture again, and add some insights, you can see how there was an extraordinary confluence of bizarre factors that made a young cow look exactly like a hyrax.

Let's start with the ears. Cows have big ears, not small ears. However, my friend argued that its ears were probably chewed off by jackals.

What about the short, stocky legs? Well, once you posit that it is a cow, then you can see how the legs could theoretically be much longer, with the lower part of the leg concealed inside the bag.

What about the pointy snout? It has a lot of flies around it. If you look very carefully and use some imagination, you can see how it could be a broad snout which only looks pointy because of the way that the flies were positioned when the photo was taken.

Is all this too far-fetched? Well, before deciding that something is implausible, you have to weigh it up in light of the alternatives. It's much less far-fetched than positing that there is a bear or a giant mutant hyrax near Afula!

Shabbat Shalom! As you hear/read the Torah portion about hyraxes, non-kosher birds, and the shemonah sheratzim, remember that you can see and learn about these animals at The Biblical Museum of Natural History!


  1. Was it a discarded stuffed dead bear (he asked sadly..)?

  2. It's clearly a parah adumah

  3. This is one of the out-takes from the fake moon landing photo shoot. There were going to take a hyrax to the moon, but they didn't have any available, so they used a cow instead, suitably scaled. They almost got away with it.

  4. Speaking of sheratzim can you do a post on identifying the 8 sheratzim?

    1. Aren't teiman Yemenites supposedly the only ones with a mesorah? Road trip. (Dangerous)

  5. If you turn the photo upside down, you can see it's a cow much more clearly (if you know what you're looking at).

    The question is, what's a cow doing in a sack on the side of the road? Cows aren't wild, and not that common here.

  6. Not only was it not a hyrax in the photo, it's not a hyrax in last week's Torah reading either!(let the war begin)

  7. really? i must be wrong, but i don't see it that way. what would it take to get a cow into one of those bags and dump it there? and why? to me the coke cap seems just about the size of the tip of the snout, which seems right. seems to match the shrubbery too. can no one go there to check it out? anyway, if it is a cow, shouldn't someone cut away the bag so it can decompose properly?

  8. Adam from ManchesterApril 13, 2018 at 10:36 AM

    "This is Afula not Dimona." Classic!!

  9. Mutants are a major potential in Afula, a location known to be גרעיני.

  10. If it's ears were bitten off it sure is so peferctly symmetrically made and with no sign of blood. Healed so fast?
    Usual YA.

  11. My first thought when I saw the picture was that it was a calf. So, I think you're on the right track.

    Also, I'd like to point out that Hyraxes are like the cutest animal in the world. I had never seen one before visiting your museum, but they made a big impression on me.

    1. Just bear in mind (no pun intended) that they are wild animals. A friend's cat was badly injured by one.

  12. Seems similar how atheists/creationists come to their conclusions. They start by saying what it definitively isn't/is, and then maneuver e/t else into their desired result.


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