Deciding fate of ‘biblical dog’

Canaan dogs are housed at Sha'ar Hagai Kennels in Israel, which may be closed by the government. Illustrates ISRAEL-DOG (category l) by Nicolas Brulliard (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday March 28, 2012. (MUST CREDIT: Photo by Nicolas Brulliard for The Washington Post).

SHA’AR HAGAI, Israel – Pricked, pointy ears and almond-shaped brown eyes. A tan or black-and-white coat and a tail that curls upward. For many in Israel, this is the description of a pesky stray that feeds on garbage. But for a passionate few, it is a cultural treasure to preserve.

Meet the biblical dog. “When they talk about dogs in the Bible, it was these,” says Myrna Shiboleth, who has done more than anyone to rescue the breed formally known as Canaan dog. “It was the same dog.”

The archaeological evidence bears it out, from 1st-century rock carvings in the Sinai to the skeletons of more than 700 dogs from the 5th century B.C. discovered south of Tel Aviv. When Jesus and Moses turned their heads to the sound of a barking dog, it was the Canaan that they saw.

But after surviving the birth of three religions, the Crusades and countless wars, the Canaan dog, one of the oldest known breeds of pariah dogs, is the focus of a battle that pitches people who believe in the value of preserving the primitive breed for scientific and sentimental reasons against modern bureaucracy. Land use is key in the battle.

In recent decades, scores of Canaan dogs were destroyed in rabies eradication programs, and now only a few hundred subsist in the Negev desert, often living at the edges of Bedouin camps. But as Bedouins settle in cities, the Canaan dogs either are left to fend for themselves or lose their breed’s traits by mating with urban dogs.

And now the Israeli government is threatening to close the operation that has been helping preserve the breed by collecting rare specimens in the desert, breeding them and shipping their offspring to kennels around the globe.

In an eviction notice sent late last year, the Israel Land Authority argues that Sha’ar Hagai Kennels is illegally occupying government land. Sha’ar Hagai’s Shiboleth says she moved more than 40 years ago to what was then an abandoned water station and paid rent to the water company only to find out that it didn’t own the land. She says she asked the land authority about regularizing her situation and heard nothing until she received the eviction notice. Moving, she says, would be prohibitively expensive.

In an online petition, about 2,000 people from dozens of countries and nearly every U.S. state have taken up Shiboleth’s case, voicing outrage at what they see as Israel’s lack of attention to the “holy dog.”

The matter is to be decided in court. If she is not successful there, Shiboleth and her dogs face an exodus that will most likely put an end to her breeding program. What surprises many is that the dog is getting so little support compared with other Bible beasts.

Starting in the 1960s, Israel launched an ambitious program to bring back “the animals of the Bible to the land of the Bible,” says David Saltz, an ecology professor at the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Targeted species included the Asiatic wild ass (success) and the ostrich (failure).

The Canaan dog has been recognized as Israel’s national breed, but conservationists don’t put the hound on a par with the Arabian white oryx, which receives full support from Israeli authorities.

The Canaan dog is “what they call a mutt,” Saltz says.

An Austrian biologist who came to Palestine in the 1930s, Rudolphina Menzel identified them as a native breed and named them after the biblical Land of Canaan.

In 1965, the first Canaan dogs arrived in the U.S., and it didn’t take long for Shiboleth, then an animal trainer in New York, to get hooked. She moved to Israel in 1969 with an American-born female Canaan in tow. In 1970, she and others founded Sha’ar Hagai in the Judean Hills, using Menzel’s breeding stock and dogs collected in the wild.

The Canaan dog was originally popular with the Jewish diaspora, but soon others were attracted by its natural look. Its profile was raised when John F. Kennedy Jr. purchased a Canaan in the 1990s. Today, the dog can be found in households across much of Europe and North America as well as in Russia and South Africa.