In late December 2009, four fallow deer were freed in the hills of Jerusalem. This was a special event to nature and Bible lovers and the dramatic story of the return of the fallow deer to the Land of Israel illustrates the great lengths to which some Jews have gone to in order to recreate the Israel of biblical times.
Nearly 500 fallow deer of different species currently roam throughout Israel. Their miraculous return – and the rebirth of so many biblical species -- is a testament to the tenacity of a few determined people. This is the story of the Persian fallow deer, as reported by the Wall Street Journal:
In 1962, Israel began actively protecting nature, with the passage of a conservation law. Active IDF General Avraham Yoffe, who was a founder of the Haganah militia, commander of the army division which boldly captured Sharm al-Sheikh in 1956, and ranking member of the pro-Judea and Samaria Movement for Greater Israel, was named head of the new Israeli Nature and Parks Authority.
In the 1970s, Yoffe learned that a breed of fallow deer which made its home in the Land of Israel during biblical times, was alive and well in Iran.
The Persian fallow deer is mentioned as a kosher animal in the book of Deuteronomy. In the Book of Kings, it is listed as one of the many animals presented to King Solomon as a tithe.
The species was believed to have been hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, but was discovered in Iran in the late 1950s.
Courting the Iranians
General Yoffe was inspired to bring the deer back to Israel and re-establish the population. He began establishing relationships with Persian dignitaries, inviting first the Shah's brother, Prince Abdol Reza Pahlavi, then senior Iranian wildlife official Rashid Jamsheed to Israel to hunt the rare Nubian ibex.
Permission to hunt the ibex was granted by then-Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, who made an exception to the strict hunting laws to make room for General Yoffe to entice the Persians into providing Israel with the treasured deer.
In 1978, Prince Pahlavi agreed to give four fallow deer to the Israel Nature Authority. Yet when General Yoffe traveled to Iran to pick up the animals, he suffered a mild heart attack. On a stretcher bound for Israel, General Yoffe pleaded with Israel's last military attaché to Iran, Yitzhak Segev, to acquire the deer for Israel.
Yet the Islamic revolution in Iran was gaining momentum. Iran's Jews were preparing to flee and the Shah's family and associates went into hiding. Segev had his hands full preparing the emergency evacuation of 1,700 Israelis living in Iran. General Yoffe saw the window of opportunity closing, and sent zoologist Mike Van Grevenbroek to assist Segev in capturing and evacuating some deer before the shah's government crumpled.
Armed with a blow-dart gun disguised as a cane, Van Grevenbroek landed at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport on November 28, 1978. After taking a day to gather supplies, Dr. Van Grevenbroek drove 10 hours to a game preserve on the Caspian Sea.
For five days, he tracked, captured, and crated four deer while Segev applied for export licenses.
During this time, the Islamic revolution was in full swing. The Ayatollah called to the Iranian people to spill blood as they marched through the streets amidst burning tires and looted shops. Segev was forced to hide his identity and sneak around Tehran in civilian clothes. "There was shooting all over the streets, and here I am, an Israeli general, going to the zoo," Segev told the Wall Street Journal.
Iran's senior government veterinarian, a German named Mueller, initially refused to allow the deer to go to Israel. He ultimately granted a permit for them to travel to the Netherlands. On December 8th, the deer were loaded onto the last El Al flight out of Tehran, nestled amidst the valuables of Jews fleeing for their lives from the Ayatollah's regime.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Van Grevenbroek said "I arrived to the airport in Tel Aviv, unloaded the deer and there's the big general waiting with tears in his eyes."
Since then, biblical horses, antelope, and ostriches have been acquired and reintroduced into Israel's wild, in the hopes of recreating the Israel of old.
The fallow deer freed in the hills of Jerusalem in late December were four descendants of General Yoffe's deer.