'I’ve Been in Situations Where I Fought a Hyena Over a Carcass'

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: An Israeli animal researcher who almost missed his son's birth while watching eagles in the desert, and an American who joined the Marines after a dream about God

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Orr Spiegel.
Orr Spiegel.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Orr Spiegel, 43, lives in Kibbutz Mishmarot; arriving from New York

Hello, what were you doing in New York?

I was at Yale University to teach a course on analysis of animal movement and migration. I’m a researcher in the zoology department of Tel Aviv University.

What animals do you study?

Mainly birds. I have one doctoral student who works with eagles in Israel, and another who works with the Nature and Parks Authority on fallow deer. They’re large deer with horns – there used to be many of them. A great deal of money is being invested to return them to nature, but then the wolves, which are also a protected species, prey on them.

It sometimes seems as though human intervention does more harm than good.

That’s possible. For example, there are a great many cows in India, and at one time vultures ate the carcasses when they died. Twenty years ago, medication was introduced that saved cows from certain illnesses, but when they died the vulture population declined rapidly, because the medication poisoned them. And because there are no long-term vacuums in nature, stray dogs started to eat the carcasses of the vultures, so rabies spread more easily and tens of thousands of people got rabies every year. That’s an example of the usefulness of studying animal movements.

How do you monitor the movement of an eagle?

By using a transmitter. Because it’s a large bird, you can actually fit it with a GPS. But it’s tricky. We trap them in cages and then it takes two people, one of whom has to hold the eagle down strongly, otherwise they’ll both be scarred by the bird’s bites. Evolution has made them capable of slicing meat effectively, as you can see by the scars on my palm.

Dangerous work.

I’ve been in situations where I fought with a hyena over a carcass – or lionesses have come to eat the zebra I left as bait. I tell myself that what’s happening here is off the wall. When I was doing my doctorate, in Namibia, we caught a goat and put a transmitter on it. A few hyenas showed up, but the savannah kind – 40 kilos, serious animals, not like here in Israel – and my friend said, “Take the butterfly net and chase them away.” I take the net and drive them off, and after about 20 meters they turn around and look at me, and suddenly I realize there are four hyenas and I’m waving at them with a net.

Sounds a little like Indiana Jones.

Yes. But then sometimes you write a completely theoretical article. For example, I wrote about the differences between individual animals when sampling movement. Individual animals have different personalities; for example, some are slow and some are fast. If we take into account the differences between them, that changes our understanding of how populations work. For example, toads in Australia are an invasive species that humans brought in, but they don’t all move the same way. So in the forefront of the invasion there aren’t just any toads, but species that move fast or in straight lines; the “front” progresses faster than you would expect from the movement of the average toad.

Are these studies relevant to humans as well?

Of course. For example, there was a study conducted on fishermen. Some like to return to the same place – they’re called exploiters – and others look for a new place every day: They are explorers. It’s possible that there’s no great difference in the number of fish the two groups catch, but when there’s a disaster, such as a leak from an oil tanker, you see that the explorers adapt to the change better. Those are ideas that originate in studies of animals and help us understand human behavior.

Sounds like living the dream.

A dream has a price, too. It’s hard to leave home for a month. You miss it and sometimes the conditions are hard: You sit for hours dehydrating in the sun, waiting for an eagle to swoop down and eat. It’s not like being in a nature movie all day. But nature is important and exciting.

Which do you like better – being out in nature or the other, academic part?

It’s a combination. When an article I’ve written is accepted after I worked on it for three years, there’s a satisfaction. But when you’re sitting in the desert in the morning and five eagles appear and you see the flapping of their wings as they cross the sky in a fly-over with the sunrise in the background – it’s a wonderful feeling. That’s how I almost missed the birth of my son. Lucky thing the inspectors were able to drive me to the hospital.

Mitchell Malfitano.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Mitchell Malfitano, 25, lives in Houston, and flying there

Hello, how did you spend your time in Israel?

I visited here together with my girlfriend and her family. It was a church trip; we visited all the sites connected with Jesus. I grew up Catholic, but I took what I wanted from that. Today I go to church regularly and enjoy it.

What changed?

My girlfriend had something to do with it, but the main change happened after the wild days in the army.

What did you do in the army?

When I was 18, I met with a U.S. Army recruiter and immediately afterward I dreamt that God was telling me to join the Marines. I felt that it was a sign, so I signed up for four years. It starts with 13 weeks of basic training.

How was basic training?

The difficulty there is more mental than physical, because entering the system demands that they break you.

Yes, I saw Jack Nicholson in “A Few Good Men.”

They’re not supposed to hit you in basic training, but stuff happens. And you’re also not allowed to communicate with the outside world the whole time; you can only write letters.

Did you like the military?

Very much. In basic training there are history lessons and also shooting and navigation; you learn how to treat wounds, how to survive in the forest and at sea. The more the process progresses, the more the soldiers by your side become family. After basic training, there’s six weeks of instruction and then training for your specific job and then the job itself.

What was your job?

I tried to plan for the future and wanted a profession for when I’d be discharged. So I went to a military college and today I have experience and a degree in logistics. Besides that, I served in all kinds of places in the Middle East – Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Bahrain, Amman – and also in the Far East: Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines. All in one year.

Did you see action?

I saw all kinds of things. Helicopters crashed next to me, and I was in Iraq until a few months ago on a private contract, and mortar shells were fired at us. We think it was ISIS. But I didn’t see all that much action, or at least that’s what other people told me later. I thought I would prefer the opposite – we the Marines, like the Spartans, love action – but I know that all in all, I was lucky.

Are you in favor of Americans being in Iraq?

In terms of the big picture, I think it’s a good thing that there’s a strong American presence, but I’m not sure we have to stick our nose into every place. I don’t always understand why we intervene in wars between countries that we don’t even share a border with.

That’s one thing you can’t blame on Trump.

I actually like Trump – not everything he’s done, but he’s doing good work in some areas. The problem is bigger than that. I feel that my country is making sharp turns right and left, it’s all extremes, and that won’t change if young people don’t stand up and change it. But because of financial issues, that’s not happening. I would like to be in politics, to try to correct things, but it’s impossible to mount a campaign without money of your own.

Aren’t you a bit young for politics?

Anyone who serves four years in the army isn’t exactly a kid, and 25 is the youngest age at which you can be elected to political office in the United States. But before that I’d be happy to start a business and get married.

How long have you and your girlfriend been together?

Five months.

And you’re already thinking of marriage?

Surprisingly, yes. We have a really strong bond, and I believe there’s a reason that God brought us together. My girlfriend is Brazilian, and people there don’t believe in just dating. There’s a lot of that in America today, all kinds of applications and superficial kinds of relationships. When you’re in the Marines, things also go pretty well with the ladies. Wild days. When possible, we would have a good time, drink, let off steam. God wasn’t necessarily in favor.

Why not?

I didn’t date good Catholic girls, I went out with typical blonde cheerleaders, very liberated, wild girls. I discovered that I wasn’t really attracted to them. I just did it because they were there. I always wanted a serious relationship, and I think the reason I didn’t find one was because I hung out in places like Bumble and Tinder. The whole time you get the feeling that there are plenty of fish in the sea. Online dating sucks.