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History of Bali dogs

Lena Moral Waldmeier


Jakarta  /  Wed, June 6, 2018  /  01:22 pm
History of Bali dogs

Stray dogs at Sanur Beach, Bali. (Shutterstock/File)

We study history in order to learn from the past and improve the future. However, the complexities of day-to-day life seem far removed from a historical context in which we analyze the continuity and change that has led to the moments in which we are living now. We often get caught up in the unique tragedies of the "current", unaware that centuries before us there were societies that lived through far greater, albeit similar challenges.

The Bali dog is heralded as a symbol of heritage by local activists and rescuers alike. A commonly cited study by a team at the University of California, Davis is highlighted in order to illustrate the genetic variations found in the Bali dog as a result of what is likely the existence of a diverse population that remained geographically isolated, dating back to 12,000 years ago, according to a research article titled "Genetic Variation Analysis of the Bali Street Dog Using Microsatellites" published in BMC Genetics 6.

The associated importance of the species has resulted in its renaming as the "Bali Heritage Dog". Nonetheless, the exact nature of this heritage remains unexplored.

Miguel Covarrubias, a Mexican painter, published an anthropological homage to his visit to Bali during the 1930s, providing one of the few observations on the lives of Bali dogs. In his relatively academic tone, he describes the roads as “infested with miserable dogs, the scavengers of the island”. He goes on to describe the notion of these free-roaming animals that nonetheless remain part of specific compounds and families.

There are various depictions of dogs in traditional Indonesian art that date beyond the period of this publication as can be seen within the collections of the Agung Rai Museum of Art (ARMA). However, the extent to which they accurately represent the sociocultural dynamics in which these animals lived with the Balinese is debatable.

Covarrubias goes on to explain how populations of dogs would “reproduce unchecked”, describing them as “homeless living skeletons” suffering from frequent cases of “ulcers and mange”. This last illustration suggests that little has changed almost 100 years on, as Bali dogs continued to suffer from skin ailments and unimaginable diseases while abandoned and roaming the streets of the island.

It remains pertinent to consider the Orientalist limitations of Covarrubias’ work as his own anecdotal evidence serves as much an illustration of Occidental perspectives as well as the life and culture of Bali.

The Hindu epic Mahabharata has been invoked as an explanation of the cultural acceptance of masses of free-roaming dogs and their integral place in Balinese communities. The story follows King Yudhistira and the ill-kept dog that faithfully follows him to the gates of heaven where the dog is refused entry as a result of being considered spiritually unclean. Therefore, the king refuses to enter without the dog, which at this point transforms into the God Dharma, typically representing justice and righteousness. King Yudhistira is commended for his loyalty to the dog, thereby reinforcing the deep spiritual bond between the Balinese and the Bali Dog. It may be regarded as an imposition of Western norms and values when taking into consideration our own emphasis on enclosed areas, leashed walks and continuous baths for pets.

Nevertheless, according to a recent survey, the majority of respondents state that dogs represented security, while only a quarter considered them companion animals, and as little as 2 percent spoke of religious or traditional obligations, according to a journal article titled “On dogs, people, and a rabies epidemic: Results from a sociocultural study in Bali, Indonesia” in Infectious Diseases of Poverty.

While American journalist Mark Derr argues that the urbanization and internal dynamics of Bali’s societal transformation are in part the catalyst or at the very least, exacerbate the conditions of squalor to which Bali dogs are subjected, Miguel Covarrubias wrote of “eternally hungry dogs” that would devour rice offerings back in the 1930s. While tourism continues to challenge sustainable development, there are clearly other influences that contribute to a sociocultural pacifism with regards to animal welfare.

The most effective remedy remains community engagement and general education. Rabies remains a risk to society while continuous cullings have failed to make any progress in its extermination.

A study titled "Participatory Methods for the Assessment of the Ownership Status of Free-roaming Dogs in Bali, Indonesia, for Disease Control and Animal Welfare" on free-roaming dogs and implications for welfare and disease control concluded that it is unlikely that these populations will achieve adequate health without “direct human oversight” and the implementation of regulations for the former. Therefore, it is clear that intervention is required at a far larger scale.

Further government support is required, not only in providing vaccination and sterilization programs but in using community-based approaches and school education to instill an understanding of animal welfare and the implications for society when there is a lack thereof.

Covarrubias sums up his observations by determining that Bali dogs were “undoubtedly provided by the gods to keep Bali from perfection”. While his cynicism provides an apt illustration of the frustration felt by many visitors and inhabitants, it fails to look beyond the superficial.

These creatures are kind and intuitive. They continuously exhibit enormous intellect as well as genuine appreciation, and most of all, loyalty.

Bali dogs may be semiferal and difficult to train; however, an act of kindness toward them will most definitely be rewarded with an unrivalled faithfulness akin to the bond illustrated by the Hindu epic. (kes)


The author is a recent graduate. She is starting a new blog at and an Instagram account @thebalidog.


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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.