A very long-lasting lingering memory of having spent time in a full-blown Rabies virus outbreak, is how fear of an ‘invisible enemy’ manifests itself within the human population. When you learn to observe what a microscopic pathogen is capable of, its impersonal objective aim to survive and thrive, respect becomes an addition to fear. Terror is only a short sneeze cough or bite away.
A viral outbreak/epidemic/pandemic has an observational physical manifestation with very visible impacts. But under that grosser reality resides a more subtle emotional level.
Zoonotic pathogens that jump/leap from animal to human are particularly scary. But given our baseless and arrogant belief that we are better or separate from what inhabits that other world we tend not to think about the consequences until the threat directly confronts us. It is in this psychological realm where real long-lasting damage and hopefully reflective learning is done. The dead are dead, but will the living learn from the shock experience and commit to adaptation and heed the message to change, in order to survive.
When Rabies impacted Bali, the island was totally unprepared. Prevention is better than cure, is of course wonderful in hindsight. The result unfortunately, given our historical reality of national and global reactive forces/measures to crisis response, has continuously led us to wage war from a defensive position. Bali was certainly not alone in how it responded. It was to witness that their human population had no immunity against a deadly viral bloom that was successfully using their own indigenous canine as its transportation vector. What lessons the small Island would learn, given their economic dependence on tourism and unique version of Hinduism dictating their daily existence, is still unfolding 10 years on.
Bali dogs were blamed for bringing a harbinger of death onto Bali and they suffered horribly from an outbreak that was not their fault. Their physical/emotional wellbeing and survival was decimated and the refusal to acknowledge their sentience was intolerably sad. Predictably we must use othering to blame for and cover our own shortcomings.
Ten years later and another Zoonosis is spreading terror in the minds of humans. Suspicion and mistrust of each other and hypervigilance is now our constant reality. We are isolated physically and mentally, with literally nowhere to go.
Undoubtedly Bali dogs will suffer on an Island in lockdown. Freedom of movement will not feed their dependence on us for most of their nutrition. They cannot be blamed for this Pandemic, although I am sure many would like nothing better. This falls completely in the collective human lap.
Herd immunity, 70-80% population vaccination, has always been a standard by which a species can reach resistance against the spread of a contagious disease, usually in the form of a deadly threat. This was what saved more dog and human lives on Bali.
After a decade ‘studying’ the Bali dog and the relationship it has with its environment we can confidently say that humans have not made their existence better. Their gross environment, air water landmass, has been depleted and squeezed. Their ability to free roam, as is their innate nature/instinct, has been curtailed massively. Their ability to reach herd immunity against their most deadly threat is impossible when faced with the globes most lethal virus.
Nothing to date has been successful in resisting the most virulent destructive virus known to nature. Herd immunity has not saved many/any species from us. We have been waging an ongoing war, systematically exterminating everything around us, with no regard for the simple reality of interdependence.
We have lived by a banal, selfish, self-serving, and infantile insecure logic of ‘kill or be killed.’
A virus is a virus is a virus….
Not a thing compares to us.
Flattening the curve. Shelter in place. Physical distancing. Bali Dog dream come true.
Fully stopped and reverse thrusted humans are beginning to get a very small glimpse into the painful reality of what it’s like to be caged. There are many dogs on Bali who live their entire existence is such a state of physical and emotional torment.
So many of them are in ‘well-meaning’ clinics and shelters. In places where they struggle daily, waiting endlessly for their intolerable curve of anxiety to be flattened, while physically distanced from everything that resonates with their version of normal.
As dog’s best friend is brutally finding out, locked down for our own benefit is difficult enough, locked in against our wishes is worse, being caged against our will, well that’s just not right. That’s enforced imprisonment.
Humans are already suffering separation anxiety from what feeds their unique nature. Loss of human to human contact is scientifically proven to make us prone to every psychological ailment known. Its only been a few weeks yet already COVID-19 is exploiting our insatiable need to socialize and exposing our inability to isolate from our own kind. It’s using our human weakness against us. Our very basic nature in needing to gather/herd with our human species.
When you separate a Bali dog from their canine species, suffering is created. When you create physical distance, chained caged sheltered, suffering is created. When you think you know best by denying access to their kind, suffering is created.
As Coronavirus (COVID-19) washes over Bali there will be many human deaths attributed to a virus that has specifically selected us as its primary carrier and messenger. Not so long-ago Bali dogs were selected as transmitters for the terrifying Rabies virus. They still carry the stigma and suffer confinement realities associated with that frightening viral outbreak.
It will be impossible to know if/what lessons will come from this human caused event and global full stop. Nothing will go back to before and everything going forward will lack certainty and stability. This really is life in the greater world.
For now, Bali dogs have free run of their island. How long that will last is now dictated by a virus that has forced us into our version of caged. For now, we are chained. For now, for our own good.
It feels so good to be unchained and uncaged.
For us and them.
The Trust Game
It’s generally acknowledged that canines are hardwired to read the behaviour of other species, survival instincts utilized for the single purpose of simply staying alive. Reading the intention of others is of course not isolated to dogs but their ability to detect the motivation of their ‘best friend’ is of particular interest, given the overwhelming evidence that they are much better at ‘seeing’ us much faster and more accurately than we could ever hope to be. There are in fact many theories that they know our motivation and can predict our subsequent behaviour before we have physically shown our ‘hand.’
When it comes to Bali dogs, and in particular those ‘old’ breeds who have cut their teeth in villages and on streets where survival is the only thing on their minds, trust based on gut instinct is a very serious business and the only mindset that matters. When a genetic line, with that at its base, is handed on over thousands of years, trust is a no negotiable element.
Bali dogs and their kind do not suffer fools at all, they can’t afford such fatal mistakes. Most non-Balinese have no concept as to why most Bali dogs are not affectionate and mistake their obvious and unmistakeable signals as either aggression or avoidance resulting from abuse. That is not to say there are no abused or aggressive dogs, however most visibly healthy Bali dogs are not about to attack or cower away.
They just don’t trust you.
The general behaviour of a Bali dog is an indication as to how this breed has survived this long. They need to have contact with humans for one reason only, food. They are built to survive and do very well in hunter gathering scenarios and environments but if food is available without needing to work that hard then like any other species, they will gobble up that option. The risk is of course that it brings them into close/direct contact with us.
Their relationship with Balinese people is very long and deep, make no mistake about that. Even if it is not what many see as the ‘right’ relationship, it’s a union that has survived and a mutual agreement that has seen a unique dog and an isolated culture endure. It’s a meeting point at where trust has developed literally as, ‘don’t bite the hand that feeds.’
The lack of open affection has enabled the Bali dog to avoid any confusing signals emanating from human intention. That is most certainly not to say that this canine is incapable of giving/receiving touch. Contact is not uppermost or pertinent to their survival, food shelter and security most certainly are.
The ancient bond, that is the Balinese dog Balinese people relationship, is based solely on an unwritten unspoken trust.
I trust you to offer me food and in return I will offer you security in guarding your family if you offer me shelter for my family to survive.
The contract continues.
Myth Magic Reality
Like any engaging story, elements and combinations of myth magic and reality must be present. Myth/folklore factor large in the Bali dog tale. As with all historical stories that pass through the conditioning of many generations and as the passage of time widens, reality is invariably diluted, and a rewriting of history is offered up.
Before the latest foreign economic mass tourism invasion, the Bali dog was a virtual unknown. Seen as a shadowy passthrough on old grainy film footage or captured as an element on black and white scenic/village/marketplace photographs the dog was just another expected part of preindustrial SE Asian life.
The reality that the dog was nothing more than a functional part of a larger existence was inescapably accepted and obvious back then, its survival wasn’t considered a priority. Nowadays that reality is still there, but it has become uncomfortable to many people who justifiably cite welfare as a right that should be afforded such an ancient canine.
An awareness movement began approximately 40 years ago. It arose from a few foreign/outsider individuals who began rescuing Bali dogs. Whatever their intent and based on their viewpoint, it began a campaign mentality that has grown exponentially. To date there are close to 100 groups and individuals who rescue/rehome dogs that are abandoned/abused. The abused and discarded dogs appear to keep pace with the opening of yet another group or an announcement that another individual rescuer has joined the club.
The Island is seen as magic and mysterious and a place imbued with supernatural energy. So, it comes as a jolting shock when the marketed myth that Balinese are such a beautiful welcoming kind lot collides head on with the reality that they are in fact just people with all the vagaries, niceties and nasties that are globally generalized in us all.
The reality is that Balinese people do not see their dog, or anything else, the way mainly Caucasian welfare/rescue mentalities view the issues facing the Bali dog. The reality is that generally none of us appreciate what we have and are always on the lookout for new and sparkly. Myth and reality rarely meet and live happily ever after in the middle of anywhere.
So, we are left with magic.
The magic is the reality that one of the very last ancient indigenous dogs is still actually alive and thriving. The magic is that whatever their relationship with people of all cultures is, they are still doing it, in built up urbane areas, step back in time villages and forest/jungle isolation. The magic is that for now they are still here and that there are many organizations/people including Balinese who are doing everything to protect promote and preserve them.
The reality is simply that from myth and storytelling a relationship with the Balinese dog has endured and flourished.
That is magic.
The ill that KILLS
Away from major tourist areas Bali dogs still number in the tens of thousands. They survive and thrive in rural and outlying ‘real’ Bali, where households sustain an average of 3-6 mainly lokal dogs.
As ‘progress’ continues its inexorable march, more foreign breed dogs are joining in and adapting to the new and changing landscape. For now, survival for old historic Bali dogs and new fashionable foreign canines appears to be assured.
There are many things that will kill when it comes to what befalls dogs on Bali. From accident to intentional, the outcome for what is still a free roaming canine is based on luck, charm, instinct and opportunity. In the main their ability to survive on very little, escape intentional directed harm and utilization of their genetically infused hunter gather instincts enables them to live to adulthood. Free roaming adult Bali dogs are living completely according to their historic nature and even though their lifespan is relatively short, 4-6 years, their quality of existence is nonetheless ‘better’. As we have discussed in other blogs confining a Bali dog is the ultimate torture.
Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour (TVT) is a very efficient killer and is found worldwide but most commonly occurs as a contagious tumour in dogs in tropical and subtropical countries. It is transmitted from dog to dog through normal social behaviour, usually mating. TVT has been creeping slowly across the island of Bali for many years. The tumours it causes are large, bloody and very painful. They will eventually kill the dog, but not before ravaging its body and destroying its relationship with its human companions.
The only form of defence against TVT is to sterilise the dog populations. Sterilisation is the most humane form of animal management available to free roaming dog populations and their human companions.
Bali dogs and their Island human companions faced down the horrific Rabies virus, dealt with and survived the shock associated with that very efficient killer and maintained the unbroken bond they have had for thousands of years.
Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour (TVT) will continue to test the relationship.
It can only be hoped that the virulence of this virus does not result in shining unwanted attention on a union that ironically survives on a relationship of inattention.
On the Old Bali trail
There are many places on this small Island where life is simple, meaning that less really is more. Where not much dictates making use of everything. Where being creative and inventive in the face of scarcity simply means survival.
These are villages where birth life and death follow an accepted cycle, where daily rhythms remain unchanged and where seasonal adaptation is approached and faced as an opportunity for planting sowing and reaping.
They are locations that still attempt to follow generational family and cultural traditions while dealing with encroaching modernity and an avalanche of convenience wrapped in tons of plastic.
Banjar’s where each family cohabits with on average 3-5 dogs, mostly the islands first original dog, but with a growing number of foreign breed dogs. Where most dogs still roam free, free from confinement and wanton intimidation. Where the condition of humans and dogs mirror each other. Where nature sorts weak from strong, letting the outcome be what is, dictated by balance and natural selection.
These are areas not that far in distance from the climatic and consumerism hot zones of down South, but they are light years away from the bloated lifestyles associated with wealth and want. These areas located North, West and East probably number in the thousands with probably tens of thousands of mainly lokal dogs.
‘Old Bali’ still exists. Locations where life is certainly not perfect not affluent or generally healthy. Where for now they possess an uncomplicated simplicity representing how it was.
Pressure on these places will of course continue to grow, progress dictated by human desire. But for now, away from a future inevitability, dogs’ people and community continue to need and tolerate each other’s shortcomings.
For now, as old traditions battle new temptations and where human desire greed and want are breaking through, the only thing keeping it all at bay, checked and tenuously balanced is a greater need to maintain a cultural philosophy. By actioning what has been handed down through endless generations these faraway communities are holding on to what old Bali once was. What still resonates in the memory of so many.
Indigenous societies are evaporating rapidly worldwide, Balinese culture is nowhere near immune, no matter how strong it appears.
Balinese dogs are a simple part in the complexity of Balinese existence. They fit in the puzzle of daily life and their place physically and emotionally in the picture is best observed in places where ‘old Bali’ still is.
In places where simplicity just is.
Where just is, is everything.
Put more than one species in a space close enough for contact and the propensity for war is most certainly more likely than not. Put in species of different origin and the likelihood for animosity escalates exponentially.
Humans are from species same but when you examine us closely our sameness from a cultural viewpoint difference places us at a high level of conflict. It puts harmony at risk and our inability to see through other eyes continues to endanger us and everything else.
Setting up ‘home’ with Bali dogs and with Bali people in a traditional village is complete and utter insanity, of course. The propensity for conflict as species and cultural difference(s) meet and converge, intersect and inevitably diverge, is at a premium explosive level, of course.
A lot of deep breathing and a load of compromise can get things started. Having Bali dogs in common can help yet can also be an immovable barrier and a powder keg emotional argument starter. Foreigner culture is stereotypically regarded as being loud and emotional, prone to losing face. Balinese behaviour regarded as reserved and reluctant to show extremes of emotion, all about face.
So, it all begins with the walk. Walking with Bali dogs is a unique experience, semi feral free roaming dogs don’t generally take to collar and leash attachment and being led, anywhere. Add humans from vastly different cultures and you have a recipe for disaster, humour and/or success, dependent on physical and emotional handling.
Dogs are very talented at bringing humans together and as crazy as it sounds Bali dogs can be the cultural bridge that invites different cultures to meet in the middle and embrace each other’s weird ways.
After a few years, which of course in dog time is dog only knows how long, things just lead on from where they originally began. Dogs have a gift to offer us about the simplicity of isness, about just being. About just here and now.
Allowing one thing to simply lead to another in the weird Bali dog world enables the human actors to learn something invaluable about getting on and along with each and all else.
It’s the human world that’s weird. Its a world where we tend to make everything more difficult than it needs to be or is.
In the Bali dog world when you allow one thing to lead to another and another, present time and simple now is really all there is.
Getting on and along, is simply all that matters.
It just is.
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.
Persistence & Power
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.
In a beautiful family compound behind a furniture shop on a main road heading north out of Tegalalang a 60yr old Ibu (Mother) resides with her human family, menagerie of assorted animals and her 17yr old Bali dog. In the Balinese calendar, their years could be plus or minus a few, but by the look of them her calculation is near enough.
Nothing on Bali happens in isolation, its one of the many realities of life that this Island is so determined to remind you about. Her old dog was the epitome of how long the first Island dog can survive when given care and comfort and safety. The average lifespan for a street dog doing it tough is generally 7 years, although there are always exceptions to that rule, especially if they reside in safe areas that are more conducive to their free roaming natural instincts.
Ibu was surprised that we recognized her old dog as a Belang bungkem, a light brown coloured dog with a black muzzle that is usually sacrificed in certain Balinese ceremonies. Not all dogs with such markings are used and this old dog had lived a very full life as witnessed by her numerous offspring. Ibu explained that although she loved her numerous foreign breed dogs, Bali dogs were very special and intelligent, but that their greatest quality was their ability and need to be Setia (loyal.)
She explained that for Balinese life without their dog is not something that’s considered, dogs are part of family, it just is. To prove her belief, she welcomed us into her family compound proper and showed us the statue they had built and erected in a central position within the compound. She explained that the story of Yudhisthira is a lesson to live her life by and that each day she gives blessing to the statue and what it represents to her and Balinese way of life.
In a world where loyal is becoming tribalized and used for division rather than unification meeting Ibu was a reminder that conflict and separation will always be unhealthy actions with disastrous consequences.
Setia is a timeless action with a quality of intent that gives old Bali dogs and their human companions many lifetimes of deep meaning and abundant purpose.