When you share your life with a Bali Dog it doesn’t take long before you know you are living with a pretty special animal. Unique, amazingly intelligent, stubborn, loyal, and protective companions, they can also be arrogant and downright rude sometimes, but this just seems to add to their appeal. It is these traits that give them their umami – that something special that domestic dogs just don’t have.
The Balinese refer to this as the ‘spirit of the Bali Dog’ with the dogs being seen as independent subjects and not participants in a dependent relationship with human beings (Orr 2016).
This differs greatly from the Western cultural approach to pet ownership in which we live, sleep, talk and play with our adult dogs and is a constant source of tension as both Balinese and foreigners make value judgements about the two different paradigms in managing and handling the Bali Dog.
(Note that this is separate from deliberate acts of cruelty and neglect. Handling and management in this context refers to decisions about where the animal roams, plays, sleeps, what it eats and the general community attitude towards its guardianship).
A wise old Bali man once said that the worst thing you can do to a Bali Dog is cage or confine it. They are born to be free-roaming. It’s a fair enough assertion particularly if you consider what happens to the psyche of a Border Collie, a Blue Heeler or a Malamute if you confine and don’t allow them to engage in what comes naturally. Expats who have tried to confine a once free roaming Bali Dog in their yard have no doubt experienced the destruction that quickly ensues.
Sadly, this free roaming, independent spirit is now under threat. Human behaviour change is now threatening to add to the growing list of risks facing the Bali Dog.
Balinese people are being required to change the way in which they handle their Indigenous Dog. Rabies, legislation, and education are now enforcing and requesting that the Bali Dog be treated like a domesticated dog in a Western style of pet ownership. Collars, leads and confinement are slowly becoming the new normal. This changed human behaviour will result in changed dog behaviour as this recent study shows.
In time the Bali Street Dog that we know and admire today will be shaped and moulded by their changed environment. But, until that time comes we all need to continue to celebrate this most unique Indigenous Dog of Bali.
At family funerals, community cremations and endless ceremonies for every occasion they can be seen, mingling meandering and hanging in and around their human families.
As development begins to overstretch and consume more and more fertile spaces the Bali Dog is obviously not as visible. But take a short journey in a Northerly direction and life for this enterprising volcanic island canine continues as it always has. On an island that’s relatively small in comparison to its many attractions full blown globalization hasn’t reached many isolated areas.
It’s where the Bali Dog can still wander free in a cultural environment that’s attempting to hold on to its ancient traditional way. Where they can still function purposely as they were designed. It’s where they can move through time, adapting slowly to inevitable progressive change.
Thankfully they can still be seen, just hanging with the village people, for now.
For those who were on Bali when the incursion occurred it was impossible to escape the horror of what was happening. The oldest most lethal, adaptable and resolute virus had invaded paradise and was hell bent on testing an equally ancient adaptable and resolute relationship.
It was a truly terrifying time. Seemingly overnight a bite from your compound dog went from a painful inconvenience to a probable death sentence. Panic, rumours and propaganda muddied the waters for those trying to disseminate logical information.
The primary reservoir for the rabies virus was the local dog, Anjing Bali. At the time local rumour would have you believe that it was only the Anjing Bali that could give you rabies. Propaganda that was reinforced by the government culling teams who moved around the island on sweeping missions to eliminate the local dog population.
Balinese people in small villages and large regions had existed with their dogs since the beginning of time. On a very small Island, human and canine had lived free from any internal threat and had survived all outside incursions. For the vast majority of Balinese, the Rabies virus was an unknown invader. Gila anjing, crazy dog, was to become their way of seeing and understanding what was happening to their ancient indigenous canine. A very familiar and reliable part of their lives was turning on them. The fear was palpable and very real.
It’s no wonder that the ancient Bali Dog | Bali People relationship was pushed to breaking point and there were many who wondered if it would even survive the incursion at all.
It has been ten years since that time and it is interesting to sit back and take stock of what impact the rabies incursion has had upon the dog / human relationship.
At the height of the incursion a decree was issued by the Governor of Bali to cage or chain your dog. Free roaming dogs were (and still are) the victims of elimination from the government culling teams. It is in the urban areas of Bali that the impact of this decree has been integrated into daily life. In those areas there are noticeably fewer dogs, and definitely less free roaming dogs. However, in rural areas, this decree seems to have had no impact. Out beyond the reach of the tourist strips multiple Bali dogs accompany their human companions as they meander through daily village life.
Some studies have shown that Balinese people are now keeping fewer dogs. Again this seems to be true for urban areas, but in rural locations it appears that the number of dogs living in a compound is dictated only by the amount of resources available to feed them, as has always been the case.
The most obvious impact that is apparent island wide, because of its visual nature, is the collar, colloquially referred to as the necklace. Prior to 2008, when rabies first appeared, you would never have seen a collar on a Bali dog. But, rabies made the collar an essential item for people who wanted their dog to stay alive. The collar signified a rabies vaccinated dog, meaning that the dog was safe (did not have rabies) and owned. Over the years the colour of the collar has changed from the initial red, to orange, yellow and at the present time the clumsily tied purple collar adorns recently vaccinated dogs.
Government elimination teams still sweep the Island from time to time, and there should be no doubt that the suffering caused by these teams is not limited to the dogs who receive the poison darts, their human companions do grieve their loss.
People’s knowledge of the rabies virus appears to be sketchy at best, and rumours are still plentiful. Whilst the need to attend a clinic after a dog bite now seems to be ingrained in local knowledge, the causes of the virus, the need to be pre-vaccinated and the types of mammals that can transmit rabies, are areas about which people have wrong information.
Ultimately, despite some new relationship rules, it appears that the relationship between people and dog has survived the incursion. Bali people are still sharing their lives, compounds and Banjars with multiple Bali Dogs, just as they always have and likely always will.
Old men and old dogs have a way of reminding us of something. Something that sets off an internal vibration, a deep comforting sensation that assures us that humanity is still alive and well. A wellness that replenishes and fills spaces, an aliveness that soothes cavities that have inevitably become dry parched and literally scorched after a lifetime observing the indecencies that humans inflict on all forms of life.
Bali is a very small Island that’s crammed with every type. All manner of beings flock and fly to what’s fondly referred to as paradise. Unfortunately nowhere can live up to such an illusion, life has a habit of stripping the veneer from that fantasy.
Bali People often get bad reviews when it comes to the care of their dogs. Cruelty and abandonment (throwing) issues regularly top the list. There is no defense against such premeditated acts that are unfortunately universal and growing. Even in countries where hard fought laws have been created to prevent such visible actions from occurring, out of sight atrocities still go on and on and on.
Bali is still on the path toward something better. It’s a work in progress according to its own pace and style. External pressure has been an ongoing strategy for many years. Being continuously told you are bad is not a healthy strategy. Generally labelled as uncaring does not win favours or influence workable friendships. Laws and legislation can be a very effective hammer and understanding and empathy can soften the blows and ignite a deeper longer lasting movement from within.
The aging Bali man and his aging Bali dog are companions of a bygone era that’s thankfully still present. They represent the goodness and kindness that’s still there, relationships that are mostly hidden from the microscope of microcosm Bali. They are modelers of behaviours that are totally untaught and they represent ancient unions that have never been analysed and critiqued for their flaws and failures.
They are to be celebrated wherever they are found and never left to be seen as just passing by.
To the uninitiated a Bali Dog is at best nothing more than a mere nuisance. At worst it’s a very unwelcome pest. Of course these reactions are understandable.
Bali Dogs in their natural setting are not that attractive when their natural setting is overrun by tourists demanding a different setting. In fact they can be completely ill mannered and annoying, especially around unnaturally occurring tourist areas. One of the reasons why Bali Dogs have become a rarity is down to their way of behaving. Their way of hanging around the perimeter of human gatherings has a way of unnerving people who are unfamiliar with the motivation behind such behaviour.
Thankfully there are untold areas where the Bali Dog is not regarded as an unwelcome. In locations numbering in the thousands they can be found guarding compounds in back street village locations, mingling with local people at early morning markets, following rice farmers to and from work, sitting with their human families in the coolness of dusk and attending ceremonies of every occasion.
They are still there in the multi-layers of Bali life. Not hidden away or shunned, not unwanted or maligned. Like a life between lives they move as if nothing has changed for thousands of years. Thankfully in the shadows, in the backdrop and beyond the scenes of unrecognizable change, very little has moved for them and their human companions.
Very little from what has always been to what will inevitably come.
On her first visit to Melbourne Australia a friend said. ‘It’s a beautiful city and so clean and the facilities are so impressive. But there’s something not right, something is missing.’
Asking Balinese people why they have Bali Dogs is futile. What their dog means to them? Now there’s a stroll into history.
Manifesting the same genetic blueprint with each evolving cycle the Bali Dog Bali People relationship has altered little at its historical core yet massively with the passage of time. Characters and their physicality are the only ongoing change in a play that has been running since the beginning of time. It’s a marriage spanning thousands of years and like any lengthy union a degree of blending overlapping and merging emerges. It can result in a hellish prison of resentment or a comfortable well established unspoken balanced partnership.
Invasion and colonization over the eons hasn’t broken the marriage and divorce hasn’t become fashionable or inevitable. None of this means that the marriage is perfect, no marriage is. But even with the obvious individuality within these species and pressure of modern and fast changing Bali, something unknown unspoken and unrecognized has cemented this marriage with a bond that to date is unbreakable. It just is.
‘But there’s something not right, something is missing. There are no dogs and for us Balinese, life without our dogs is not right, not normal.’
You don’t know what you don’t know …. Whilst this saying is a convenient way of explaining why people act, or don’t act in certain ways, it is true. How can you know what you don’t know?
The converse is also true. Sometimes you simply don’t know what you know. Cultural norms, entrenched behavioural patterns and rituals – we all have them to some extent and it’s not until we consciously think about them or when they are drawn to our attention by someone else that we become aware of them. We just do certain things or behave in certain ways and it’s during those times when we don’t know what we know.
Ask the majority of Balinese about the relationship they have with their Indigenous dog and you are likely to receive a casual shoulder shrug and a non-committal response. It’s not something that they tend to think about a lot. A classic example of when people don’t know what they know.
“Keeping dogs for the Balinese is just part of the way we are…”
Focus Group Participant, Widyastuti et al. (2015)
We have observed the relationship between these two groups of sentient beings for the past eight years. There is a definite way of rearing a puppy, a definite way of caring and a definite way of preparing them for life on the streets. Preparing them in an ancient fashion that in no way resembles the human pet relationship that is found in the Western cultural context. But it is most definitely a relationship. Do all Balinese follow these patterns? Of course not, just as not all western cultured people follow the fur baby regime of pet ownership.
“Balinese relate to dogs as independent subjects in their own society and not subordinates in a dependent relationship with human beings….. ”Orr, (2016)
Recently observing the journey of a Bali puppy into a compound has been a fascinating experience. From the moment of collection and after being picked up from the gutter for no other reason than it ‘felt right’ the puppy was cosseted and petted. Petted in the unique Bali style of dog petting, which basically constitutes firm whacks on the head accompanied by a high pitched noise, the puppy found itself the centre of attention. This attention was mostly positive until she began to develop a liking for rubber sandals. She soon learned that in order to remain living in the compound there are rules that must be followed.
Contemporary pet ownership behaviours were also observed with a collar being placed on her neck as soon as she was home. As she has grown her collar has been replaced as her people don’t want her to get ‘killed’ on the street. Plans are being made for her to be sterilised as the family don’t want any puppies around unless they choose to have them.
Most interesting has been the transition of the pup from being confined to the compound and being dragged back inside each time she has ventured out. Within one week of her arrival the male of the compound started to take evening walks to the end of his gang, encouraging the pup to follow him. There she and he would sit with him smoking and talking to others and her barking and learning how to hang out with the dogs of her neighbourhood. After a designated period of time man and dog simultaneously wandered back to the compound. Night after night this ritual has taken place and now the pup will wander outside the compound but will not venture any further than her nightly ritual takes her. She knows the neighbourhood and it knows her. She has become one with it and this will only continue to grow as her independence increases more and more.
Whilst her human family respect her independent spirit and the risks that go along with allowing her to be free, it does not stop them from worrying and caring for her. In repayment of their ancient union she now guards the family compound against all seen and unseen entities.
It is her way and their way. It’s the Balinese way.
No matter which way a Bali Dog is chosen or arrives at a compound, there is a unique and ancient system used to tell the personality, or character, of the dog. This system, performed only on puppies and known as Guna Jaya Kala Paksa, involves a complex ritual using pieces of coconut leaf.
The puppy’s nose is measured, from the tip to between the eyes. This basic measurement is then used as the foundation ruler which dictates the number of folds that can be obtained from around the coconut leaf. Folds are counted whilst speaking out loud Gunya, Jaya, Paksa, Ketek, Kiul. The word spoken on the last fold tells of the character of the puppy.
Guna: Useful for hunting and guarding, very loyal dog.
Jaya: Will bring the owner good luck, a charismatic dog.
Paksa: A dominant dog who is very loud and assertive.
Ketek: This dog is dirty and has a large appetite.
Kiul: A lazy dog who will be hard to train.
Bali Dog puppies are petted, cossetted and nurtured but changes in these socialisation patterns begin when an adolescent dog is able to run and shows an interest in leaving the compound. The household now considers the dog responsible for his or her own provisioning. Unlike Western dog owners, Balinese people will rarely interfere with Bali Dogs interactions with each other on the streets, only becoming involved when a neighbourhood dog enters their compound uninvited.
The lack of provisioning and the importance of the independence of inter-canine social and biological relationships illustrate how Balinese people relate to the Bali Dogs as independent subjects in their own society and not as subordinates in a dependent relationship with a human being (Orr 2016, 69).
It was heartening to recently read that a miscreant was apprehended for stealing a dog. The purpose for the clandestine theft, allegedly carried out after a poisonous substance was utilized, was to allegedly use the dog to feed humans. However the feeding of the dog, against its will, to humans for their consumption, is not why the offender was arrested. The taking of another’s property was the reason.
A Bali Dog historically doesn’t actually have a single owner. Rather they are ‘owned’ by a conglomerate. Bali Dogs have always been regarded as, and in many cases still remain in factual reality ‘anjing liar,’ translated as ‘wild dog.’ Not officially owned by any one, yet known and unofficially owned by all, by virtue of how the neighbourhood functions. A Bali village really is a number of different things or parts that are put or grouped together to form a whole but remain distinct entities. Bali Dogs have existed and cohabited within this systemized reality forever and have physically free roamed their paws to the bone within their entire village area.
It makes sense that killing a person’s dog is theft because the act of taking the animals life is depriving the owner of the relationship. If this case is pursued through the legal system it will definitely be a test case. If successful then even the anjing liar will be a little safer from dog meat thieves and disgruntled non dog lovers within their villages. Anjing liar, those that are wanted by their community are those that perform a function such as temple dogs, will be afforded a new sense of protection.
Should the dog meat traders (or those who don’t like dogs) decide to target these useful dogs for capture and death then the entire village will technically be able to bring about a case of theft. Because those dogs, by the fact of their utility to the community (whatever that utility may be) are part of the village structure and therefore belong to the community.
This makes them communal property.
And it is against the law to steal another person(s) property.
Irrepressible is defined as; inextinguishable, unquenchable, uncontainable, uncontrollable, indestructible, undying, and everlasting. Irrepressible describes the Bali Dog perfectly.
You can bring in legally, import illegally and backyard mass produce and cross breed as many non-Bali Dogs as you want. But there’s only one Dog on Bali that looks like it truly belongs.
There are many issues and threats facing this small Island. From pollution made by humans, to human made inequality poverty and suffering, Bali has more than enough to deal with. Bali Dogs are very low on the issue and threat scale.
Thankfully there remain to be thousands of Bali Dogs and an equal number of humans who care enough to not eat abuse and or kill them.
Thankfully the magnificent unique irrepressible Bali Dog continues to be just a part of the rich tapestry that is Bali life. Low enough on the radar to be celebrated not castigated. Yet still high enough visually to be beautifully shown to an Island that must continue to deal with so much more than a simple dog that has been with them in all their ups and downs since time began.