'The country didn't care'

Evicted from home in Israel, leading national dog breeder starts over in Italy

Her appeal against the Israel Land Authority lost and Sha’ar Hagai Kennels destroyed, 70-year-old Myrna Shiboleth moves famed Canaan dog operation to Tuscany

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Myrna Shiboleth and one of her Canaan dogs, Sha'ar Hagai, February 2016 (Joel Zand)
Myrna Shiboleth and one of her Canaan dogs, Sha'ar Hagai, February 2016 (Joel Zand)

Myrna Shiboleth turned more than a few heads when she showed up at Ben-Gurion Airport last November with 14 dogs, flying with them to Italy on a one-way ticket.

Shiboleth’s uni-directional travel plans were deliberate. The world’s foremost expert breeder of Israel’s national Canaan dog has no plans to return to live in Israel. And even if she did,  she wouldn’t have a home to come back to.

The modest house in which Shiboleth lived for four and a half decades while breeding most of the world’s 5,000 existing Canaan dogs, was razed in July by the Israel Land Authority after it evicted Shiboleth from it and the surrounding property on which she operated the famous Sha’ar Hagai Kennels.

A dog looks out over the ruins of what used to be Myrna Shiboleth’s house at the Sha’ar Hagai Kennels after it was razed by the Israel Land Authority, 2017 (Courtesy)

“I’m heartbroken. My daughter called me to say that bulldozers just showed up without warning and destroyed the buildings. These were buildings with a history of about 80 years that were part of the development of the country and are in a location that was prominent in the War of Independence. I have no idea why they did it. They’ve never explained what they plan to do with the property,” Shiboleth said.

The ILA did not respond to an inquiry from The Times of Israel as to why Shiboleth’s former home was bulldozed.

With the building now a pile of rubble on a hillside overlooking Highway 1 between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Shiboleth is focused on beginning a new life in a new country. Even at age 70, she believes it is better to start over in Italy than to stay and try to rebuild her business in Israel.

“I’m very disillusioned about Israel. I’ve been a lifelong Zionist, but today’s Israel is not the Israel I came to, or would come to again. People don’t care about others anymore, only about politics, money and getting ahead,” Shiboleth said.

The rubble remaining after the Israel Land Authority razed Myrna Shiboleth’s former house at the Sha’ar Hagai Kennels, 2017 (Courtesy)

In March 2016, The Times of Israel reported on Shiboleth’s legal battle against the ILA, which claimed that Shiboleth and others were squatting on public land that had been declared a national park in 1965.

Shiboleth made aliya from the US in 1969. In 1970, with other dog enthusiasts, she settled on the abandoned property adjacent to a water pumping station dating to the British Mandate period. The group signed a lease with Mekorot [the national water company], believing it was the owner of the property.

Myrna Shiboleth and her trunk upon her aliya to Israel in 1969. (Courtesy)

In the ensuring years, Shiboleth married and had a daughter. The family fixed the place up very slowly, living the first 17 years without a phone or electricity.

In 1980, Mekorot refused to extend the lease and told Shiboleth to vacate the property. When she refused, Mekorot sued her in Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. During those proceedings, it emerged that the ILA, and not Mekorot, was the actual owner of the land.

In 1982, the kennel managers asked the ILA to give them a lease so they could stay on legally. According to Shiboleth, they asked repeatedly for a lease over the next 30 years, but never got a response.

An ILA spokesperson admitted to The Times of Israel that the case was never dealt with, that it “fell through the cracks.” ILA insisted, however, that this was beside the point, as Shiboleth and her group were “squatters” without any right to inhabit the property in the first place.

Shiboleth, a widow for the last 24 years, reported that she had regularly paid property taxes and had always followed the directives of the regional council. She had hoped that this would count for something in her appeal of the court’s eviction decision, but it didn’t.

“I was thrown out without a penny, without any compensation,” she said.

It was clear to Shiboleth by last spring that she had to find somewhere new for her and her dogs — Canaans, Collies and Podengos — to live. The ILA offered to let her extend her stay until June 2018 in exchange for NIS 50,000, but she could not afford it. Neither did she have the money to rent or purchase property appropriate for a kennel operation anywhere in Israel.

Myrna Shiboleth and her dog Habibi in Italy, 2017 (Courtesy)

With no assets or pension (she had put everything she earned over the years as a breeder, trainer, animal behavior research technician, and dog-food company consultant  back into the kennels), Shiboleth resorted to an online crowdfunding campaign to raise resources for her move to Italy, where a friend from the dog breeding world offered to go into business with her.

After a challenging initial landing in Parma in northern Italy, in late spring Shiboleth moved to Pontremoli in picturesque Tuscany, where things are going more smoothly for her and her dogs. With her credentials ratified by the Italian canine sport association, she and her business partner have opened a small canine center. She’s also continued to show her dogs.

While Shiboleth has had to start learning Italian and get used to living far from her children and grandchildren, her dogs have adjusted quickly and well to their new surroundings. A new litter of five Sha’ar Hagai Canaan puppies have even been born and are enjoying romping around in the Tuscan fields.

Puppies from the first litter of Sha’ar Hagai Canaan dogs born in Italy, 2017 (Courtesy)

No longer in Israel, Shiboeth is unable to continue her semi-annual trips into the lesser populated areas of the Negev desert in search of Canaan dogs living in nature. The Canaan dog — whose sole origin is Israel — was first recognized as a registered breed in 1965 and has few genetic or health problems. Shiboleth has kept the breed’s genetic base broad by bringing Canaan dogs from nature into her breeding program.

“You have to be crazy dedicated to find the outside stock. The Israel Kennel Club is supportive of the Canaan breed, and I hope they’ll do more. I have friends in Israel with Canaans that I hope will look for desert dogs,” she said.

Shiboleth herself will regrettably now be on the sidelines when it comes to this work.

“I can advise, but I obviously can’t actually do it from here in Italy,” she said.

Shiboleth expects to return to Israel for visits to see her family and friends, but she does not envision the possibility of moving back.

“I think I have contributed to the country, but it was recognized more abroad than by Israel itself. The country didn’t care. The government doesn’t give a shit about dogs or preserving the Canaan breed,” she said.

But at this point, Shiboleth is determined to meet this new, unexpected turn with optimism. Starting over as a septuagenarian is far from easy, but she is focused on the positives, enjoying everything Tuscany has to offer, including beautiful scenery, friendly neighbors, healthy and tasty food, and a lower cost of living.

“I feel like I’m back at the beginning, like I’m 25 again,” she said.

Most Popular
read more: