May 30, 2024 Last Updated 8:34 AM, May 27, 2024

Barking mad, biting back

Barking mad, biting back
Published: Mar 15, 2014

Cultural clashes emerge as Bali struggles to eradicate rabies

Gillian Bogart

Pupies, a domesticated Bali dog, spent day and night chained to a post. Gillian Bogart

Living in Denpasar, Bali, I saw dogs everywhere. Seeing them bark, play, fight, and mate in the street was a part of daily life. My friend Komang, who I lived with, also had a dog. Pupies, a domesticated Bali dog, spent day and night chained to a post next to the narrow pathway that led to my room and routinely growled at me when I passed. One day, in an attempt to win Pupies over, I volunteered to feed him. I instructed Pupies to sit, but quickly realised that he was not familiar with this concept. As I bent down to place the bowl on the ground, Pupies lurched forward, his chain pulled taut, and his canine teeth sunk into my cheek.

An hour later my face had been sewn shut. Two days later I was finally able to get a rabies vaccination. While waiting in line with the many other people who were also bitten by dogs, I realised that my situation was not unusual. I also recognised that the cultural heterogeneity of Bali made the task of rabies eradication a difficult one for the government and NGOs to manage.

On an island of just 5,632 square kilometres, Balinese, Indonesians from across the archipelago, expatriates from around the world, and a steady flow of tourists, cross paths daily. Each of these populations brings a set of cultural values and way of doing things. While these differences make for colourful exchanges, they can also cause cultural clashes, as can be seen with the case of rabies eradication.

Since the rabies elimination effort began in 2008, a mass vaccination campaign led by the government, which began shortly after the outbreak, and continues today, has been the most effective part of the effort to eradicate the disease. Still, the work of the government and NGOs is far from done; in July 2013, five people in Gianyar were reported as having been bitten by a rabid dog. Media updates that monitor progress of efforts to proclaim Bali rabies-free by 2015 emphasise the importance of campaigns for responsible pet ownership, yet they measure success of these campaigns with quantitative data that reflect a decrease in fatalities. Media pays little attention to changing perspectives about the role of dogs in Balinese society and the cultural beliefs in which they are founded. But what kinds of cultural clashes and transformations have emerged as a result of the rabies eradication campaign?

Human and canine tolls

The current rabies outbreak has been the cause of approximately 140 human deaths since 2008. Early on, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended mass vaccination of dogs, which the government eventually moved forward with. The government also culled and killed dogs on a large scale, exterminating almost a third of the island’s approximately 600,000 dogs. Critics of the government’s elimination method included Balinese people who recognised it wouldn’t work, international organisations that claimed the approach was ineffective, and segments of the expatriate population who were appalled by what they perceived as inhumane treatment of dogs.

To supplement the governmental efforts, local and international NGOs were called upon for support. The involvement of these NGOs marked a transformation of the relationship between humans and dogs in Bali, and added another layer of complexity to the relationship between Balinese people and foreign inhabitants.

Changing representations of dogs

Traditionally, Balinese people have a mutualistic relationship with dogs. In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, one of the main characters, Yudisthira, makes a pilgrimage with six companions. When he arrives at the gates of heaven, his only surviving companion is a dog. Yudisthira refuses the gatekeeper’s command to abandon the dog in order to enter heaven, since the dog had loyally protected him throughout the journey. It is actually Yudisthira who has passed a test of loyalty as the dog transforms into his father Dharma.

This story illustrates the Balinese Hindu concept of ngayah or loyalty and total dedication to the gods. The name Dharma is also significant, as the concept of dharma is central to the moral code of Balinese Hindus and their beliefs about maintaining cosmic and social order. This order maintains gods above humans, and humans above dogs.

One of the first organisations to address animal welfare issues in Bali was the Yudisthira Swarga Foundation. Established in 1998 in response to mounting tourist complaints about the condition of dogs on the island, the organisation came to the aid of the Balinese government when the rabies outbreak occurred in 2008. Yudisthira Swarga leverages traditional beliefs about benevolence towards animals to encourage people to treat dogs with compassion. The website lists principles of ‘basic love’ and has a program to teach school children how to care for a dog like it is part of the family. In comparison to other NGOs, Yudisthira Swarga’s message is unique in its regard for cultural practices on the island.

While secular law exists in Bali, traditional cultural values and social pressures guide many people’s actions. In the case of the rabies epidemic, the well-being of Balinese people is entangled with many factors: public health, a vibrant economy based on cultural tourism, and the well-being of animals. Advocating for animal welfare involves promoting new moral codes regarding interspecies relationships.

Educational programs focus on proper ways to care for a dog, which involve tying it up, walking it on a leash, and feeding it dog food. These programs and behaviours are promoted through billboards and poster campaigns that present images of dogs as cute, cuddly and domesticated. Such images are a stark contrast to the roaming dogs one encounters on Bali’s streets, as well as to representations of dogs in traditional Balinese art and society.

Dogs and the social order

An acquaintance of mine, Pak Dolir, shared his perspective that the purpose of a dog is as protector. The gangs of dogs that live and move about his village freely act as an alarm when unfamiliar people enter the village. In his view, to tame and domesticate a dog is to alienate it from its essential function as a protector.

Purchasing and feeding dogs ‘dog food’ is a relatively new trend in Bali. Ngelungsur, a traditional Balinese concept, is an exchange that takes place between gods and humans, as well as humans and animals. After offerings are made to the gods, people eat food that is thought of as leftovers from the gods. This food is considered to be a blessing and is not thought of as unclean. This is also the case when a dog eats food left over by humans.

According to Pak Dolir, the traditional relationship between Balinese people and dogs is not one of disrespect, but of coexistence. He suggested that in putting vast amounts of resources towards caring for dogs rather than humans, it is NGOs, rather than Balinese people, that are disrespectful and unethical. For him, rescuing dogs and promoting moral systems that make humans the protectors of dogs, rather than the reverse, upsets social order.

The notion of the dog as protector is part of Balinese culture in the physical sense and in the metaphysical realm. Animal sacrifice is performed at certain ceremonies, where dogs are sacrificed in order to keep negative forces of the universe in balance with good ones. In other ceremonies, offerings are made in thanks to dogs. In both the role of the dog is to protect humans.

From ‘other’ to ‘ours’

The mystique of spirituality and ritual draws many tourists to the island, but the rabies epidemic has also created a space for foreigners to publicly criticise ritual practices and behaviours of Balinese people. Some animal welfare organisations denounce the killing of dogs without differentiating between ritual sacrifice and the government’s anti-rabies elimination efforts. These organisations, both of which have Australian backing, are Bali Street Dogs, established in 1997 and one of its partner organisations, the Bali Animal Welfare Foundation (BAWA), which became active in 2007. BAWA, based in Ubud, has been in the news recently, as local officials have closed it owing to alleged violations related to permits and waste management. In an effort to keep fulfilling its mission, BAWA has continued to engage with the Balinese community by hosting events marking World Rabies Day.

BAWA’s mandate is ‘to relieve suffering, control the population and improve the health of Bali’s street dogs while educating the local population in animal welfare.’ In addition to photos and stories that describe the work BAWA does in the field, its website also explains that ritual sacrifice is one of the hardships dogs face in Bali. It condemns behaviours not aligned to the organisation’s moral values and summons people to crusade on behalf of dogs who aren’t respected by ‘ignorant people’. Praising a book published by BAWA, a supporter states, ‘Anyone who is not affected by these stories has lost their humanity.’ BAWA’s approach leverages a politics of fear to mobilise a base of supporters to care for dogs and alludes to the idea that in doing so one preserves humanity.

The NGO Bali Street Dogs grafts the western concept of dog as ‘man’s best friend’ onto the Balinese landscape. This group’s campaign highlights distress experienced by tourists upon sight of sick dogs and makes it its mission to educate Balinese people. Many foreigners are compelled to act on behalf of these dogs. By committing to this welfare effort, tourists and expatriates project a heroic image as champions not only for dogs, but also for Balinese society.

Interspecies, interpersonal, international

As some foreigners become more local, some Balinese are adopting a more western perspective about dogs. An increasingly large segment of the Balinese population embraces the concept of domesticated dogs. Owning an imported purebred dog is becoming more common. In middle and upper class urban homes where families can afford to care for a dog, the dog becomes a status symbol that projects an image of economic wealth, modernity, and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Here, dogs function not only as a protector or pet, but also as status marker.

While the diversity found on the island is part of what makes it beautiful, it is also the source of cultural clashes. Each segment of the population participates in the process of cultural production and makes contributions to contemporary Balinese society. This is especially true for government agencies and NGOs, institutions that run projects that aim to change values and promote the greater good. With this responsibility comes the potential to have real, lasting effects on people and society, and this responsibility should not be taken lightly.

Gillian Hope ( is an anthropologist in training at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}


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