On a steamy June morning, employees of the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA) are engaged in one of the most rewarding parts of the job: delivering puppies to an enthusiastic group of new owners—all sixth-graders—in the town of Ubud. The students have completed a course in animal welfare, making them eligible to participate in the second annual “Bali Dog Idol” contest to see who takes the best care of a family pet. Last year, 18 students completed the six-month challenge, which required them to answer questions about responsible dog ownership and strut their pup in front of a live audience. The event proved to be such a success that this year BAWA, the sponsor, has increased the number of contestants to fifty.
“I’m so excited,” says 10-year-old Dayu Bintang, after selecting a female puppy from the BAWA van. “My family is going to help me take care of it. It’s our first pet.”
Though the young girl has never before shared her home with a dog, she knows that many stray dogs roam the streets. In fact, two forage through trash near her as she holds her new puppy. If the power of education—and the joys of pet companionship—work their magic as hoped, then it’s not just this one puppy who will benefit from the “Idol” experience. Bintang and her family may also begin to look more kindly on the dogs outside.
“Education is by far the most important program—and the one I care most about—because it’s the only hope for lasting change,” says California native Janice Girardi, who founded BAWA in 2007 after doing years of her own animal rescue work following her move to Bali to start a jewelry business. “But it’s the program that I end up giving the least amount of attention to because the other problems are so much more pressing.”
Most pressing by far is the excruciating balancing act that requires Girardi to weigh the importance of preventing dogs from being born against preventing dogs from being killed. That is, does she direct BAWA’s limited resources into the spay-and-neuter effort that stops endless litters from being born and then dying on the streets, or does she put her effort into a massive rabies vaccination campaign to save dogs from being killed by strychnine under the government’s “elimination” approach to rabies control?
Life was bad enough for animals in Bali before rabies arrived for the first time last November. For starters, the tropical climate leads to nasty skin problems and parasites. Dogs are killed and maimed every day by crushing traffic. Poverty prevents people from getting the medical care and food they need for themselves, let alone for dogs, and some restaurants still serve dog meat. Then there are religious factors: The Muslim minority considers dogs to be haram, or dirty, while the Hinduism practiced by the majority encompasses animism and animal sacrifice. And while nearly every home and business is casually linked to a dog or two who may bark at an intruder and receive a scrap of food in return, few Balinese realize they should put water out for these dogs or treat their wounds.
Add to this backdrop the arrival of rabies. Nine people have now died from the disease in the capital area of Badung/Denpasar. The government’s initial reaction was to ignore international recommendations for a comprehensive vaccination campaign, electing instead to kill thousands in a mass culling.
“It’s very simple: You have to do mass vaccinations, because dogs are here to stay in Bali,” says Dr. Elly Hiby, head of Companion Animals for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). “It [a mass campaign] is not ridiculously difficult and it’s not even that expensive, but if you haven’t done it before, then the idea of implementing it can be overwhelming.”
Meeting regularly with government officials, Girardi and her staff are trying to convince the government that BAWA could play a key role in that implementation, and they are making some headway. So far, officials have agreed not to kill any dogs in the affected area who have orange collars, signifying that they have been vaccinated by BAWA, which is catching, tagging, vaccinating and collaring about 600 dogs a week. Girardi has begged the government to let BAWA take on the whole island. “We’ll do it,” she says. “I don’t know how, but we’ll do whatever it takes to save dogs.”