An ostrich farm in Israel? Sounds about as realistic as US cavalry patrols on camels.
Except that both really happened.
It is not widely known that camels were imported to the US in the mid 19th century for use by army cavalry in the Southwest. However, as the Civil War heated up, the army abandoned many of the forts, and the camels were let lose to wander freely until they died out. There just weren’t enough camels in the wild to sustain a viable population .
In the first decade of the 21st century, ostrich farming was a thriving industry in Israel, but due to changing market needs and agricultural laws, today only the original farm still exists. It has been converted from an ostrich breeding endeavor to an educational one. Its owner, Tsofia van Grevenbroek, spoke of its history to our group from Pardes Institute of this week.
A city girl from Tel Aviv, Tsofia was learning agricultural skills at Kibbutz Yotvata in the southern Negev when she met Mike van Grevenbroek, a Dutch agriculturalist. He was the original manager of Chai Bar, the first wild animal sanctuary in the country, founded to reintroduce into the wild once indigenous species, such as the oryx, vulture and fallow deer. In 1978, with permission of the Shah of Iran, he captured four Syrian Fallow Deer from a small herd that lived near the Caspian Sea. Until this herd was discovered in the 1950s, Syrian fallow deer had been thought extinct. He brought them back to Israel on the last El Al plane to leave Tehran in December 1978, at the height of the Iranian revolution. The does were pregnant, and along with a male Syrian Fallow deer purchased from a European zoo, they thrived in Israel. Today, besides the herd of over a hundred at Chai Bar, fallow deer have been successfully released into the wild in the Carmel and Jerusalem forests.
After many years at Chai Bar, Mike wanted a change. He left the nature reserve, and he and Tsofia traveled to South Africa, where they worked at friend’s ostrich ranch for a year. Ostrich ranching is a big industry there; the large birds are grown for their feathers, meat, and leather. Because the government wants to keep a monopoly, it was illegal to export ostriches or their eggs. Since Mike and Tsofia wanted to start their own ostrich farm in Israel, the night before their return home, Mike went to the incubator room and looked for ones that were about to hatch. He found a dozen, which he and Tsofia carefully packed into their hand luggage.
Anxiously, they carried their hand luggage through South African customs. A few hours into the thirteen hour flight, Tsofia turned to Mike and said, “Your bag is making noise.”
Mike had chosen well—the birds were hatching.
You can’t keep baby birds in a handbag. To the delight of the other passengers, they let the birds out to run around the plane cabin for the rest of the flight. She did not tell us how they managed to round up all the birds when they landed at Ben Gurion. I imagine it would have been only slightly harder than trying to round up a dozen toddlers who don’t want to leave the playground.
Mike informed his friend of what he had done, in coded language so the South African authorities would not know he had broken the law. The friend invited him to return and pick up twenty more. This time he put cellophane tape around the egg so the chicks could hatch and breathe, but not escape the eggs. Tsofia and Mike now had almost three dozen baby ostriches running around their apartment.
Ostriches are big birds. They grow from being small one pound chicks to six and a half foot, 200 pound birds in a year. Luckily, Kibbutz Urim was willing to take care of the birds in its children’s zoo.
What the Grevenbroeks really wanted was some land to build a farm for ostriches. Most land in this country is owned by the Israel Lands Authority. The ILA does not sell land, but leases it to people for 49 or 98 years. The bureaucracy, like most other bureaucracies, moves slowly. Meanwhile, the ostriches were growing rapidly. So Mike called General Avraham Yoffe, the first head of the Nature Preserves Authority, the man who had sent him to catch the fallow deer. General Yoffe called his good friend, Ariel Sharon, and told him about the Grevenbroek’s plight. Sharon, then the Minister of Agriculture, was promoting development of the Negev, so he in turn called the Land Office and told them to give the Grevenbroeks some land.
They received a lease for an area in the Negev, near the borders with Gaza and Egypt. The land was unsuitable for agriculture, but worked for ostriches. Although they had permission to use the land, Mike and Tsofia could not build a house. They solved their housing problem by buy three old Turkish railway carriages, which they moved into in July 1981, without water or electricity. Somehow, they managed.
After twenty-five years, they finally received a permit to build a house. The railway carriages are still there, now converted to a beautiful home. I could see traces of the original railway cars in some of the outside walls.
The ostriches thrived and the Gevenbroeks started selling them. By the year 2000, they had eight hundred breeders; twenty-two ranches in Israel were raising ostriches. Most of the products—feathers, meat, and leather—went to the export market.
Then demand for ostrich products decreased. Prices fell. The worst blow was the outbreak of bird flu in Israel in 2006—ostrich ranchers could not export anything. Then ostriches were declared a protected species. Commercial ostrich farming in Israel died.
Today the original farm has only about forty ostriches. Each male has his own large pen which he shares with two females. During breeding season he digs a nest in the ground, in which both females lay around fifteen eggs. They all share incubating duties. The male sits on the eggs during the night,the females in the daytime.
Tsofia told us that ostriches have a long history in the land of Israel. Paleontologists have found remains of ostriches from the time of dinosaurs. A few years ago, a rancher in the Sharon, the area between Tel Aviv and, found four ostrich eggs that were estimated to be around 5500 years old. Ancient pictures of birds that look like ostriches have even been found etched on stone plaques uncovered in the Galil, near Nazareth. And the ostrich is also mentioned several times in the Bible, in the books of Leviticus, Isaiah, Job, and Lamentations. The birds roamed wild in the country becoming extinct in the 1920s.
The ostrich’s long legs and two-toed foot enable it to run up to seventy kilometers per hour, for most of a day, and tends to run in circles. It’s not a very smart bird. How could it be, when its eyes are bigger than its brain?
This surprised me until I really looked at the tall bird standing a few feet in front of me. Its tiny head and big eyes do look out of proportion. I started wondering about how it sees. Vision in mammals requires a large proportion of the brain to interpret signals from the eyes. How does that work, precisely, if the eye is bigger than the brain? Yet the ostrich is known to have acute eyesight both during the day and at night.
When checking the history of ostriches in Israel, I discovered that Tsofia’s tale of smuggling ostrich eggs from South Africa may not have been entirely accurate. There were too many inconsistencies in the reporting of how the ostriches came to the Negev. Nonetheless, my mental image of a dozen ostrich chicks running loose in an airplane cabin is one that will no doubt stay with me a long time.