Israel's Very Own 'Batman' Dies at 70

Dr. David Makin is believed to have saved tens of thousands of bats in Israel through a campaign to stop exterminating them by tossing poison into caves, which the Agriculture Ministry did until the 1980s

File photo: A bat on the operating table
Moti Milrod

The life of Dr. David Makin, the father of bat research in Israel, has been unusual from the start. At age 10 he was hunting yellow scorpions for his creepy-crawly collection using Popsicle sticks. He collected butterflies and discovered a cache of sea turtles in Alexander Stream.

He also learned to play the bagpipes and, upon reaching adulthood, adopted hedgehogs, an owl, a donkey, a raven, a green monkey and snakes. He also cultivated a collection of leeches.

His occupations exacted a price, though. He would bring home not only exotic animals but exotic diseases, his family says, including tick-borne “relapsing fever” and leishmaniasis.

File photo: A bat on the operating table
Moti Milrod

Meanwhile, however, his true love was bats, like the ones his friends found in his freezer when they were looking for ice pops on hot days.

Back in the 1970s, while working on his master’s degree, Makin was the first to systematically study the 33 species of bats living in Israel. Until then, very little was known about local bats. “Nobody took the trouble to study their lifestyle properly, and certainly nobody thought about their preservation and saving them from extinction,” the Nature and Parks Authority wrote on its website about him.

Makin changed the trend, and a whole group arose devoted to bats, who began observing the caves where the flying mammals live. Unfortunately, some species had already gone extinct; others were in terrible condition.

An article about Dr. David Makin in Haaretz, 1994
Haaretz

Makin was born in 1947 in Jerusalem, the first son and first sabra in his family, shortly after his parents, Meir and Ahuva, immigrated from England. Both had served in the British army during World War II. His father, an orthopedist, served as a doctor in the army and took part in the Normandy invasion. His mother was a psychotechnical diagnostician for beginner Royal Air Force pilots.

The parents had dreamed of coming to Palestine after the war and sharing in building a model society with new Jews healthy in body and mind in the Land of Israel, says Shifra, his sister.

He grew up in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Rehavia, went to high school at Gymnasia Rehavia and loved animals throughout — a three-legged dog, a blind cat. He served in the paratroopers but it was a traffic accident that cost him his leg in 1968. Even so, he served in the Yom Kippur War, parachuted, swam across Lake Kinneret and rode horses.

Dr. David Makin
Courtesy of the family

After military service, Makin earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, physics and biology, followed by a master’s in biology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. With his wife Miriam (Mika), he moved to Moshav Givat Yeshayahu in the Elah Valley, where he farmed, growing fruit and flowers. He also began a doctoral thesis at Tel Aviv University on the ecology of fruit bats, led by the wildlife zoologist Heinrich Mendelssohn and Yoram Yom-Tov.

“He was a groundbreaker. He found new species that hadn’t been known in Israel before, at a time that nobody cared about bats,” says Asaf Tzoer, an ecologist with the parks authority. Overcoming his disability, having only one leg, Makin would climb steep trails to survey bat caves, Tzoer recalls.

Makin published papers, advised farmers and authorities, and is believed to have saved tens of thousands of bats in Israel — including through a campaign to stop exterminating them by tossing poison into caves, which the Agriculture Ministry did until the 1980s.

The late David Makin
David Makin's family

He also tried to change the bleak image associated with the flying creatures, which had been one reason for the aggression towards them.

In 1983 he moved to Kfar Haim in Hefer Valley and after a post-doctorate at Boston University, he went to do field research in Guinea-Bissau, where he lived at an isolated research station that could only be reached by helicopter.

He spent the last decade of his life cultivating moringas, a tree that originates in India and is believed by some to have medicinal and nutritional properties. He was convinced it would save the world from starvation, his family says. (While some tout the wonders of moringa, others have pointed out that gaining any real nutrition from this plant means consuming hefty volumes of leaves, and there are questions about side effects.)

Makin died at age 70 from cancer, leaving behind his second wife, four daughters and six grandchildren.