BOOKS | The Dogs in Bali: Unforgettable Dog Stories From A Flawed Paradise
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November/December 2012:
The Dogs in Bali: Unforgettable Dog Stories From A Flawed Paradise by Anna Sternfeldt Sternfeldt Media, c/o www.dog-stories-from-bali.com 63 pages, $11.95.
The praiseworthy stated intent of The Dogs in Bali is to further the work of the Bali Animal Welfare Association. But author, photographer, and publisher Anna Sternfeldt opens with the disclaimer, rare in a self-publication, that “The views, opinions, positions or strategies expressed by the authorŠdo not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, positions or strategies of Sternfeldt Media,” which “makes no representations as to accuracy, completeness, correctness, suitability, or validity of any information.”
The disclaimer may be warranted. Errors of detail, or perhaps proofreading, include a mention that Bali dogs may scratch themselves “because they have ring worms,” meaning the fungal disease ringworm. Dubious claims include that Bali street dogs defending their communities from intruders at night differ from a human army in that “A human army is fighting or defending an idea.” Though true of some armies, historically most armies–like the dogs–have just tried to repel invaders. The most problematic aspect of The Dogs in Bali, however, is a culturally relativistic description of dog sacrifice. Most Bali natives practice an ancient form of Hinduism, imported about 1,200 years ago from Orissa state, India, which features animal sacrifice in a variety of contexts, including, besides dog sacrifice, cockfighting ostensibly practiced as a religious ritual.
“Animal sacrifice is not about evil or cruelty,” Sternfeldt asserts, then explains that, “The main reason for sacrificial victims is to wipe out the negative and evil qualities of the animals and thus wipe out the negative and evil qualities in man.” In this view, animal sacrifice in Bali is indeed about evil, specifically trying to rid humans of evil by inflicting it on animals. But Sternfeldt then offers a somewhat contradictory version: “Animal sacrifice is mainly found in…rites for demons, because demons love to see and feel the taste of blood.” Seen as a “cultural necessity,” says Sternfeldt, “The ceremonies are performed in an effort to appease the demons and restore the balance of positive and negative forces,” trying to control evil, but not eliminating it.
Unexplained is why animal sacrifice persists, while many other aspects of Balian “cultural necessity” have been transformed to accommodate tourism. This could be partially explained, however, by the voyeuristic fascination of many tourists with animal sacrifice, including cockfighting, and–increasingly in recent years–the opportunity to eat dogs and attend dogfights.
“Dogs with special colors are most often sacrificed to create harmony and balance,” Sternfeldt adds. “The demand for dogs with the right colors is large, which requires constant breeding. Dogs born with the right colors are sold at a good price, while those who are born with the wrong color have little to no value. The result is a lot of dogs that nobody cares about.”
In truth every society whose refuse disposal practices provide abundant food for street dogs has many dogs whom few people care about. Bali has more dogs than most of the developing world because daily food offerings made in front of homes to ghosts or spirits, and eggs left by abundant semi-feral chickens, provide additional food sources. Dog sacrifice appears to exist because dogs are cheaply abundant–like the roosters expended in cockfights. Those who sacrifice or eat dogs often try to sabotage the BAWA street dog sterilization program. Those who exploit dogs know that reducing the Bali dog population would eliminate the surplus upon which they prey. Having to pay more for dogs might not end dog sacrifice and dog-eating, but would inhibit both.
But just keeping a dog as a treasured pet does not ensure that the dog is treated humanely. Sternfeldt praises the care of a dog who is made to wear a bell–probably at least as annoying to the dog as it would be to a human. Like much else in The Dogs in Bali, the example is incompletely considered. –Merritt Clifton
Citing the weaker of two sayings of Mohammed
A chapter of The Dogs in Bali titled “What Prophet Muhammed Said about Dogs,” addressing the Muslim minority in Bali, appears to be condensed–without attribution–from my January/February 2008 ANIMAL PEOPLE commentary “What did the Prophet Mohammed really say about dogs?” Yet it omits what I believe to be Mohammed’s most significant relevant teaching.
Sternfeldt cites Hadith 3:551, narrated by Abu Huraira, which describes a man who gives a thirsty dog water. This occasions Mohammed to remark that “There is a reward for serving any animal.” Hadith 4:538, also narrated by Abu Huraira, recounts that, “A prostitute was forgiven by Allah, because, passing by a panting dog near a well and seeing that the dog was about to die of thirst, she took off her shoe, and tying it with her head-cover she drew out some water for it. So, Allah forgave her because of that.”
Hadith 4:538 promises not just a reward for helping animals, but forgiveness of sin to anyone who helps animals, even if the sin is as grave as prostitution, compounded by the prostitute having removed her head covering, forbidden to women in public, and having dipped her shoe into a well, in a society in which water is precious, shoe soles are emblematic of filth, and even showing a shoe sole may give offense. –Merritt Clifton