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Facing eviction, breeder of Israel’s national dog hopes to be thrown a bone

Myrna Shiboleth, who has spent 46 years working with the Canaan breed, is pinning future on appeal in Israel Land Authority lawsuit

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and 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)

You get to Myrna Shiboleth‘s home by turning off the main Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway at Sha’ar Hagai, soon after flat terrain gives way to the Jerusalem Hills.

The first thing you notice upon entering the house is the more than 100 trophies displayed on shelves that line the living room walls. Plaques and medals cover almost every other inch of available wall space in the modest house.

All these awards signify Shiboleth’s success at breeding and showing dogs, particularly the indigenous Canaan breed, over the past four and a half decades.

Shiboleth may soon be forced to take these national and international recognitions down, unsure where and when she will again be able to display them. Unless Shiboleth wins a pending legal appeal, she will be evicted from her house in Sha’ar Hagai and from its adjacent dog kennels, where she has bred most of the world’s existing 5,000 Canaan dogs.

Part of the huge collection of trophies awarded to Myrna Shiboleth and Sha'ar Hagai Kennels (Renee Ghert-Zand/TOI)
Part of the huge collection of trophies awarded to Myrna Shiboleth and Sha’ar Hagai Kennels (Renee Ghert-Zand/Times of Israel)

The eviction suit: ‘They’re squatters on public land’

Neither the fact that the Canaan is the national dog breed of Israel, nor that Shiboleth is considered a world authority on it, interests the Israel Land Authority (formerly the Israel Land Administration). It filed an eviction suit in court against Shiboleth in March 2011 after it asked her to vacate the premises in 2010 and she refused. According to the ILA, Shiboleth never had any right to live or build her business on the property in the first place.

We found the place completely abandoned since British Mandate times. It was totally overgrown and there was rubble and shit all over from the sheep of Bedouin who had encamped here

“This is land belonging to the State of Israel. We’re talking about trespassers who took over six historic structures at Sha’ar Hagai in the 1970s, in an area that is a national park where residences are not permitted. This is an offense punishable by two years in prison,” the ILA claimed in a statement issued to The Times of Israel.

According to an April 2012 article in Haaretz, the land in question had been declared a national park in 1965, half a decade before Shiboleth and others moved in.

The ILA added that matters were made worse by the fact that Shiboleth and the others set up a commercial venture on the site.

The court ruled in favor of the ILA and ordered Shiboleth, 69, to leave by the beginning of April of this year. The appeal that she has filed buys her some more time.

An archival photo (c. 1970) of the property at Sha'ar Hagai around the time Myrna Shiboleth moved in. (Courtesy)
An archival photo (c. 1970) of the property at Sha’ar Hagai around the time Myrna Shiboleth moved in. (Courtesy)

Shiboleth’s version of events was quite different. She claimed that she had been trying to do things legally all along, ever since moving in with a group of other dog enthusiasts, including Dr. Dvora Ben Shaul, a Canaan dog expert who had worked with Dr. Rudolphina Menzel, the cynologist who was the first dog trainer in Israel and the first to gain recognition for the native breed.

“I set up this kennel here with Dr. Ben Shaul and some others in 1970. We found the place completely abandoned since British Mandate times. It was totally overgrown and there was rubble and shit all over from the sheep of Bedouin who had encamped here,” Shiboleth told The Times of Israel.

“We signed a lease for the property with Mekorot [the national water company], which we understood was the owner of the property — which is situated right next to a pumping station.”

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.

Interior of Myrna Shiboleth's house at Sha'ar Hagai, an abandoned British Mandate structure, in 1970. (Courtesy)
Interior of Myrna Shiboleth’s house at Sha’ar Hagai, an abandoned British Mandate structure, in 1970 (Courtesy)

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,” but insisted 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 reported that she has regularly paid property taxes and has always followed the directives of the regional council. She’s hoping that that counts for something in the appeal.

An American Zionist with a love for animals

 

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

Shiboleth, who grew up in Chicago, was fresh out of university when she first came to Israel in 1967 for a year. She found a job working with horses, which prepared her somewhat for a job handling and training animals for an animal talent agency in New York upon her return to the United States.

It was during her year in Israel — when someone gave her a Canaan puppy — that she first became acquainted with Canaan dogs.

A Zionist from her childhood, Shiboleth returned to Israel for good in 1969. She came with few possessions — a trunk filled with books; a few clothing items; and a riding saddle. She also had four dogs in tow.

Shiboleth quickly became connected to Menzel, Ben Shaul and others involved with studying and breeding Canaan dogs. Within a year, she had moved in with some of these people at Sha’ar Hagai, with the intention of setting up a breeding farm for the dogs.

Canaan dogs: People’s partners, not servants

An initially reserved Shiboleth became animated when speaking about the Canaan, a pariah dog breed.

“They are real dogs. The Canaan dog is the same as when it came into existence when dogs first split from wolves in terms of evolution. They are what nature has made, not what humans have made to suit their purposes,” she explained.

According to Shiboleth, the Canaan dog is more of a trusted and respected partner to people, rather than a servant to them.

“Put it this way: If you go to the edge of a cliff with a German shepherd and tell it to jump, it’ll jump. If you go to the edge of a cliff with a Canaan dog and tell it to jump, it’ll turn to you and say, ‘You first,'” she said.

Canaan dog bred at Sha'ar Hagai Kennels (Bar Aharon)
Canaan dog bred at Sha’ar Hagai Kennels (Bar Aharon)

Canaan dogs, which have been used by the Israel Defense Forces for nose work and guard work, have keen senses that tell them when something is different or wrong. Shiboleth claims, however, that they cannot be trained to be aggressive.

There are currently about 5,000 Canaan dogs in the world, 1,000 of them in Israel. Sha’ar Hagai Kennels has the only kennel breeding program for the breed in the country. The Canaan dog — whose sole origin is Israel — was first recognized as a registered breed in 1965.

With few genetic or health problems, Canaan dogs have a lifespan of 16-17 years. Shiboleth keeps the breed’s genetic base broad by bringing Canaan dogs from nature into her breeding program. At this point, she makes semi-annual trips to Bedouin areas in the Negev to find such dogs. She must go to increasingly remote locations for her search, as the Canaan-type dogs found in populated areas like Beersheba and Rahat are all mixed breeds at this point.

“What we don’t get in the next few years will be lost. There will soon be no more natural Canaan dogs left,” Shiboleth said.

Wanting to stay, but planning to go

Shiboleth told The Times of Israel that her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren — who have been living with her on the property — have all but given up on trying to stay at Sha’ar Hagai. She, too, is making contingency plans should she lose the appeal.

A crowdfunding campaign running for the last month has raised $20,600 toward a $25,000 goal. Shiboleth, a widow for the last 23 years, expects to use the funds to pay legal fees and make an initial payment toward a new place for her and her 20 dogs. She is looking for an inexpensive small piece of land in an isolated area where she can set up a kennel for the dogs and a caravan for herself.

She said that the campaign was necessary as she has no pension and has put everything she has earned over the years — as a breeder, trainer, animal behavior research technician, and dog-food company consultant — back into the kennels.

For Shiboleth, it is difficult to think about having to leave Sha’ar Hagai after 46 years.

“We’ve been here all this time and haven’t bothered anyone. The authorities ignored us. Why they want the property so much now, I really don’t know,” she said.

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