Text and Photos: Rony Zakaria
It was the third time I had visited Bali, an island well-known for its exoticism and sense of mystery. There were a lot of changes since my first visit, years ago. The beaches were far more quiet, the tourist spots less crowded and, in the night, only a few travellers at restaurants and cafés - all uncommon sights before the Bali bombings of October 2002. But still, there are things that are unchanged, like the thousands of pura (temples) in every corner of Bali or the beautiful sunset every day at Kuta. But I was far more concerned with the huge number of dogs everywhere, another thing that has also remained unchanged. You can see dogs almost everywhere,on the streets, on the beaches, even inside the puras.The dogs in Bali live a free-form life without owners.
Besides feral dogs, there are also partially stray dogs that do have owners but are not treated or considered as pets. Many of these dogs are only fed with leftovers and do not get proper care or medicine. Most Balinese can’t afford to go to a veterinarian to have their dogs sterilised. According to a study by a team from the University of California, there are approximately 800,000 dogs living in these conditions. Right now, efforts to control the dog population are being carried out by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and concerned individuals. The government’s role (through the Department of Health of Bali Province) is quite limited and it has not allocated any money to handle the problem.
I decided to find out more about stray dogs in Bali, so I went to a local NGO in Renon, Denpasar, called Yudhisthira Swarga. Named after king Yudhisthira from the Hindu epic Mahabharata, andthe Sanskrit word swarga, which means ‘heaven,’ the foundation was established to provide treatment for animals in Bali, especially its street dogs. I met with Dr Wayan Mudiarta, one of the senior veterinarians working with the foundation, who explained the ‘field clinic’ programme to control the population of stray dogs. Using a mobile veterinary clinic, volunteers go into Balinese neighbourhoods to treat dogs suffering from skin diseases, infections, malnutrition and other debilitating ailments. Sterilisation is also done to dogs that are captured on the streets or brought in by their owners. The programme, which has been in operation since the beginning of the foundation in 1998, has helped to prevent the birth of literally hundreds of thousands of street dogs.
I made arrangements to go out with the mobile clinic team. At 8am, we left Denpasar for Tabanan, a rural area about 16 kilometres away, or 40 minutes by car. There were seven people on the team, most of them veterinarians. When we finally arrived at Tabanan, the vets began to sterilise their equipment and to set up a small clinic at the local neighbourhood banjar (community hall). At the same time, the dogcatchers began getting ready to sweep the area for street dogs. Capturing a street dog is not the easiest task. Most of the time, at least two dogcatchers are needed to surround the dog, prevent it from escaping and finally throwing a net over it. After the dog stops resisting, it will be carried back to the van for transport to the clinic. On every sweeping operation, the van can carry at least 10 street dogs.
When the van arrived back at the banjar, a table had already been set up to make it possible for the vets to treat four dogs simultaneously.This saved time as there were at least 20-25 dogs to be treated every day. Before being released from the nets, the captured dogs were sedated. Then their fur was shaved and the areas where the incision would be made were cleaned with antiseptic. The sterilisation operations were handled by five vets on the team. There are two types of sterilisation, ovariohisterectomy for female dogs (a 20-minute procedure) and castration for male dogs (usually taking 15 minutes).
In addition to catching free-roaming dogs on the streets, the dogcatchers also ask residents if they have any pet dogs to be sterilised. Although most owners agree to do so, there are still some who refuse. One of the main reasons for this is that they want to breed their dogs. It is indeed true that some Balinese dogs have unique genes that can’t be found in other canine species. Among the most famous of these is the Kintamani, a native breed named for the region of Kintamani in central Bali. Friendly, medium-sized dogs with erect ears and long fur, the Kintamani is a favoured pet of many, and not only in Bali. There is concern that continued interbreeding between Balinese dogs not only contributes to the overpopulation problem, it can also dilute the unique genes of the Kintamani.
Many of the pet dogs that were brought to the clinic to be sterilised looked clean and healthy, but upon closer examination, several were found to have skin diseases and infections. These ailments are closely related to the lack of treatment and cleanliness. Although the problem seems to be minor, if these conditions remain unchanged amidst an increase in the street dog population, these animals can transmit more than ‘mere’ skin diseases. An early beacon of this threat was delivered in January 2007 when a research team from the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine from Udayana University, Bali, reported finding the H5N1 avian influenza virus in several dogs and cats in Bali. Although there has not been any proof yet that cats and dogs can transmit this virus to humans, the report is certainly not a false alarm.
When the clock struck three and there were no more dogs to be treated, the team prepared to head back home. On my last day in Bali, I wandered the streets of Denpasar and Kuta to feel the comforting breeze on my face. I several saw dogs crossing the street and making a nuisance of themselves to drivers. But I realised that helping the street dogs is not only about solving traffic problems or making the island more beautiful by reducing the dog population. It is about keeping Bali a place where human beings and dogs can live in harmony, just like the mythical king Yudhisthira and his dog.
A Mythic Link
Dogs play a role in many different aspects of Balinese life. An intimate connection between people and dogs has its roots in itihasa, traditional Hindu literature. One of the most important of itihasa is the Mahabharata. The last part of this epic relates the story of Yudhisthira, the eldest of the five Pandava brothers, at the end of his journey to heaven.
At the peak of Mount Meru, Yudhisthira met Indra, the king of the gods. Indra refused to take Yudhisthira to heaven because he insisted on bringing along a stray dog. This dog had been a faithful companion to Yudhisthira throughout his long journey. When Yudhisthira declined to proceed without his dog, it transformed itself into the god Dharma, Yudhisthira’s father, who had been testing him. Many Balinese keep dogs as companions because of the legend of Yudhisthira.
RONY ZAKARIA started his career as a documentary photographer after finishing his studies in photography at the Antara Gallery of Photojournalism, Jakarta, Indonesia. His work has appeared in many publications and he is a member of the cooperative photography group Panon Photos. www.ronyzakaria.com.
Published in the September 2007 issue of Asian Geographic Magazine
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