By the span of time, through a narrow lens of observation, and with a goodly dose of faith and fate and destiny and luck, all doused with a general dogged determination to learn as much as possible about a very unique canine/human relationship, we are left with mountains of unknowns that dwarf our knowns. Yet it’s those unknowns that continue to keep us fascinated and motivated to answer endless questions about what Bali dogs and Bali people really mean to each other.
The photo tells us a lot about what is happening in this relationship but it’s only a literal snap of an overall happening. A routine of daily occurrences that creates outcomes of behaviours that when played out over and over and overtime has an unavoidable consequence of building and maintaining a relationship.
The snapshot can tell us beyond reasonable doubt that the relationship is healthy and is not built on fear or intimidation. There is trust and acceptance of close space. There is a bond. Edibles used as reward for behaviour is appropriately utilized and is not handed out to facilitate any formal training, other than bringing about a generalized atmosphere of communal peace and wellbeing. There is a view of deliberate grounding, a literal levelling aspect that creates a nonthreatening space in which the participants can come together free from confinement. Any observation will of course be subject to the observer’s point of view, yet this image on any level of endless viewpoints would test any observer to conclude anything other than a positive relationship between these canines and humans.
Yet the unknowns in the photo are so much more. Is the relationship built on love, affection, emotion and on whose cultural point of view is that enacted from? Is the relationship equal in respect of sentience and is sentience even a consideration? Is the perceived action of the humans emotionally/physically generalized outside this ‘home’ environment? Is there freedom from cultural imprinting/conditioning and is there only one right and everything/all else is wrong when it comes to how welfare is measured?
Its all too easy to brand others as wrong when it comes to the highly emotive subject of animal welfare and it’s not that difficult to gauge ill treatment, cruelty, neglect and abuse. When it comes to Bali dogs, we would say that confinement, i.e. caging tethering, would be at the tip of cruelty. For a dog whose genetics scream free roaming, being locked down is observationally tormentingly hellish. Even a free roaming emaciated dog has an albeit very slim chance of physically meeting its ancient survival needs versus the psychological suffering of those who are chained caged and isolated.
The only thing we know for sure is that there is a relationship between people and dogs on Bali. But its not a huge subject, not spoken about or debated much. For many foreigners the reality that the dogs are not seen as anything other than dogs is unacceptable. That they are not regarded as unique and special is seen as uncaring, unfeeling and cruel.
But is it unacceptable and are they uncaring and cruel? Statistically speaking (there are none) is there more cruelty per capita on Bali than other developed places?
We have been very fortunate to observe the relationship those in the photograph have built and grown, so our observation is of course seen from a bias viewpoint in this instance and is of course skewed. Even though our influence has been minimal our very attendance has of course affected the effects of the relationship. But no matter what, the relationship has developed and progressed organically, totally dependent on the ability of those individuals, dog and human, to collectively adapt the relationship to their style.
The unknowable is there for a very good reason. Bali people and their dogs are as foreign to us as we are to them. The knowns are based on being able to learn from each other’s ways, patiently listening through the frustrations of each other’s cultural backgrounds and histories.
The lucky ones are those who ask the obvious questions and navigate the endless unknowables.
No one can argue about the wealth of historical data when it comes to the tenacity, determination and resolve of Bali dogs to survive.
For those who have an interest in these ‘Island First Dogs’ there’s never been any doubt that the breed is powerful.
They possess a very resilient DNA that has seen their ‘purity’ maintain its line through endless generations. In many non-tourist areas, ‘pure’ dogs are still acting out their handed-on behaviours, actions that are played out unconsciously in keeping with village life.
Human dog cohabitation and symbioses is very much a reality, but it isn’t something to think about, from their point of view.
Bali people and their dogs have been studied a lot. From an anthropological view it’s a fascinating relationship. Steeped in culture and myth, forged in dependence and need, it’s not a romantic tale. Yudhisthira Story is an example story to be lived up to. Yet as in most cases, its message is torn to shreds in the vagaries of everyday life, especially in villages where life is based on an endless search for simple sustenance, rather than economic surety and security. Where the reality of family and community survival outweighs the priorities of other life forms.
Over recent decades power has shifted when it comes to how Bali dogs should be seen and treated. The general thought is that the dogs are special, and the people should realize it.
That simple intent in and of itself is not necessarily bad. Wanting a better life is a virtuous aim. A view to beneficial outcomes for all concerned is a good thing. Unfortunately, implementation can be a tricky sticky path.
Persistence and power shifts have been exploding on what is already a very tectonically and seismic energy loaded small island. Bali dogs have always been seen just as dogs, just another thing that belongs on an island of things that are purposeful or not. Implementing outside ‘judgements’ on an island people who demonstrate persistence and power on a ritual basis is akin to patting a tiger on the head while pulling its tail. It will bare its teeth in what you mistake is a smile, while preparing to shred your scalp, if you don’t back off.
Agency and individual competition are already fracturing the messaging sent to local and Government agencies. With old persistent and new powerful players entering and exiting the Bali dog arena, welfare is in danger of being overrun by the constant ogre of ego.
Meanwhile the persistence and power of a relationship, that by any standard is far from ‘perfect’ continues and endures. Away from major tourist areas, observation of the Bali dog Bali people relationship/story reflects what has always been.
They just go about doing what they have always done, with not a care or thought for what is more important than surviving, by using each other in a purposeful manner, in order to achieve such an outcome.
The power of persistence.