The Last Bali Heritage Dog

Across the ravine, a dog sends its voice into the dense black night.  Beside my bed Tika’s ears prick and she raises her muzzle to reply.  For a few moments the timeless call and answer of the canine race echoes through the jungle.  The barks vary in length and cadence; a conversation is taking place.  I know that Tika has a different vocalisation for these social communications, for strangers at the gate, and for a monitor lizard in the chicken yard. Very interesting, canine language, but at four in the morning it’s just a bloody nuisance and I ask her to be quiet.

The connection between the dogs reflects at least 2500 years during which this highly social breed has been communicating across Bali’s rice fields and deep ravines. Tika wears a collar and sleeps on the carpet by my bed, but she is a pure Bali heritage dog — an ancient breed whose genetics preserve the history of canine evolution.

In 2017 Udyana University hosted an international conference on the Bali Dog supported by the Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA).   Dr Ben Sacks of the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California (UC) Davis presented a fascinating account of the evolution of the Bali dog and its importance to science and the community.  He strongly advocated its protection.

The often-scorned Bali dog is actually very special. These are neither mutts nor mongrels, but pristine dogs. “All dogs are descended from the grey wolf, Dr Sacks explains”. “About 7000  years ago the dog of today was born in Southeast Asia.  It spread rapidly to replace earlier proto-dogs and become the unique indigenous dog of Bali, Australia (dingo), and other regions, and eventually giving rise to the Kintamani, saluki, chow chow, Akita and basenji and other indigenous breeds.”

Between 2000 and 2003 the DNA of 3,000 indigenous dogs from all over Bali was tested in the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at UC Davis. The research revealed that Bali’s indigenous dogs held one of the richest pools of genetic diversity of all the dogs in the world. “The Bali dog is one of the  few remaining indigenous dog populations,” says Dr Sacks. “Its genome is valuable to science.”

Bali is home to two unique indigenous dogs — the Bali heritage dog and the Highland Kintamani. The Bali heritage dog has lived on the island in its pure form for at least 2500 years, possibly much longer, and the Kintamani probably evolved as a sub-type .  Because of its very rich DNA, the Bali heritage dog presents a wide range of colours and markings.

The Balinese have been keeping these dogs for millenia; canine and human skeletons have been found buried together in sarcophagi in West Bali. The dogs are very territorial and protect the temples, shops, livestock and fields of their human families as well as killing rats and repelling snakes. Bali dogs are intelligent and easy to train, and possess great character and charm.  By nature they hate to be confined and like to roam in groups; this gives the impression that they’re feral.  In fact over 90% of Bali dogs are owned, although many Balinese don’t care for their dogs as a Westerner would; they are seldom sterilised or treated for medical problems.

But they have a strong place in Bali’s culture and religion. “Bali dogs are very faithful, clean, healthy and smart pets,” says I Gusti Ngurah Bagus of BAWA. “Until recently they lived in every Balinese compound. Their genetic variation makes them resistant to the diseases and genetic conditions common in breed dogs; they are easier to feed and care for.

“Their genetic purity is now under threat which is very sad for the Balinese; we are losing a part of our heritage that was here before we were. We need to work together to preserve the Bali dog.”

Those of us who live in Bali or visit often may have noticed that there are many fewer dogs on the street these days, and they look different.  It’s not our imagination.  The population of pure Bali dogs has dropped by a shocking 80% over the past decade.  

There are several threats to the survival of the Bali heritage dog. The most serious has been the mass culling mandated by the government in an ineffective attempt to control the current rabies epidemic.  This has removed at least 400,000 dogs from the gene pool.  The dog meat trade (warung RW), which is very strong in South Bali, accounts for at least 60,000 dogs a year.  But the most insidious threat has been the hybridisation with ‘breed’ dogs in Bali.

The ironically named purebred (breed) dogs were developed over the past 200 years to select for specific traits.  Breeding ‘purebred’ dogs is a multi-million dollar international industry.  Puppy mills are common in parts of Indonesia, including Bali, where dogs are forced to breed frequently in poor conditions.

“Before 2004 breed dogs were banned from Bali and the DNA of the Bali heritage dog was largely undisturbed,” says BAWA founder Janice Girardi. “But now breed dogs have become status symbols for the Balinese. They’re often allowed to roam and aren’t sterilised because of the higher economic value of the puppies. The resulting inbreeding with the Bali heritage dog is a serious threat to its genetic integrity.  Only an estimated 20% of the dogs in Bali today could be considered pure Bali dogs.”  Other threats to the Bali dog include acts of cruelty, disease, poisoning, street accidents and neglect.

The rapid disappearance of the Bali heritage dog is worrying to geneticists.  “There are too few remaining lineages of unique indigenous dogs in some regions and Bali is in danger of losing this dog with its very valuable ancient genetic signature,” says Dr Sacks. “ Bali dogs contribute unique information about the past.  Diluting the genetics with crossbreeding means information is being lost before we even know all the questions.”

BAWA is very active in all dimensions of the complex issues of animal welfare.  It maintains Bali’s only free 24/7 animal ambulance; if you see an animal in trouble, call the BAWA hotline at 0811389004.  Its rehab/adoption program places up to 60 rescued dogs a month in permanent homes. A free sterilisation program for Balinese-owned dogs is available for banjars that request it.  BAWA’s education program brings trainers into elementary schools to teach children about responsible dog ownership.   And it advocates tirelessly for animal rights.  Obtaining funding for its excellent programs is a constant battle.  Please consider supporting BAWA’s work with a monthly donation , however modest, through

Some communities are beginning to focus on the cultural importance of the Bali heritage dog.  Sekehe Asu Bali Utama (SABU) is a grassroots club in Kemenuh, Sukawati with a mission to build a healthy dog population while combating rabies.  Almost 50 members and supporters promote education about canine health, welfare and population control in the banjar.  The community has become more dog-friendly and people now find, rescue and adopt puppies.  There are now four Sekehe asu in Gianyar.  Perhaps a banjar might undertake the project of breeding pure Bali heritage dogs to keep the DNA secure.

Tika lies at my feet as I write, her alert eyes scanning the garden.  Suddenly she bounds to her feet and barks at a sound behind the wall. Those of us who share our homes with Bali heritage dogs mourn the almost certain disappearance of this unique canine.   What a loss it will be to science, to Balinese culture and to the world if the voice of this ancient lineage falls silent forever.


Magic Carpets


Once upon a time, many miles away and many years ago, I sat in the ballroom of the Hilton Hotel in Singapore with several hundred other people.  It was my first carpet auction.

Singapore was famous for these auctions.  Piles of glorious carpets from Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and obscure bits of central Asia covered the stage.  They were dramatically displayed one by one, each more beautiful than the last, their ages and merits described.  Bidding was invited.  Hands shot into the air, numbers were chanted, another magical carpet unfurled.  I had never attended an auction of any kind and knew nothing about carpets.  But I’d just moved into an old restored house with acres of white tiled floor… I bought six carpets.

It was my last carpet auction. Clearly I could not be trusted in this kind of environment.  They were all so beautiful, my hand just kept jumping into the air somehow.   Finally a friend dragged me out of the room before I could do further damage.

But I loved the carpets.  Each was a distinct work of art, humming with the energy of the many animals and people who’d had a part in its creation.  The sheep whose wool had been sheared, the cotton farmers, the dyers, the designers, the loom makers, the weavers – all had a presence.  The carpets gleamed like jewels on the floors of the old house, adding a rich dimension of colour and elegance to each spacious room.

When I moved to Bali in 2000, the carpets came too.  I knew I’d be moving from a big house to a very small one and that my life would be much simpler – that was the purpose of the move.  But incongruous as they would be in my new life, I couldn’t leave my lovely carpets behind.

A fine carpet, gently used, will last for generations.  After 16 years in Bali, my carpets looked a couple of centuries older.  My house is largely open and there’s no glass in the windows, so over the years dust gathered between the tight knots in volumes that my underpowered vacuum cleaner could not clear. But worse than dust were the dogs.

Dogs have a natural affinity for carpets.  In the daytime they prefer the cool tile but once the sun goes down they head for the nearest carpet.   What harm can a dog do to a fine carpet? Let me count the ways.

The most innocuous substance they leave on a carpet is dog hair.  Of course, dark haired dogs prefer light carpets and vice versa, for maximum visibility of the shed hair.  Then, if the dog happens to ingest grass or bite a toad in the garden or otherwise feel that a good vomit is in order, the dog will head for the nearest carpet on which to vacate its digestive system.

Bali dogs seem to be born housebroken and accidents are extremely rare even with puppies. But in the early days I somehow acquired a dachshund pup.  Gentle reader, dachshund + puppy = disaster for carpets.  It is not a breed that is easy to housetrain anyway and Daisy had spent her first months with a friend whose house had no doors, so the dog was able to come and go at will.  Never having learned to ask to go outside or discriminate between inside and outside, Daisy was hell on the carpets.  If I made her sleep outside she would cry all night.  Our  ten years together were long and pungent.

Over the years anything that could be discharged from a dog orifice found its way to the carpets.  Kalypso, my Kintamani dog, became blind, deaf and demented at the end of her long life but never messed inside the house until her last night on earth.  I woke to hear her convulsing on the carpet beside my bed, and will spare you a description of the type and volume of body fluids which had to be cleaned up after we buried her in the garden.

Then when the puppies arrived late last year we entered the era of bones.  Puppies chew things, and in order to distract them from shoes, pillows and furniture I began to provide them with meaty raw bones.  We must have gone through several pig carcasses in those six months.  And unless I remembered to close the door the pups would make themselves comfortable on the nearest carpet to chew their treats, adding a patina of blood, sinew and marrow to the mix.

Of course all the dogs liked to chew on the fringes and the edges.  Dead rats, birds and sometimes even chickens were brought into the house and laid reverently on the carpet by my bed, which saw the most intense action.  Wayan Manis and I would diligently scrub the grubby bits but as the years went by the carpets dulled in colour and their energy dimmed.  The whole house was getting dimmer, really.  I’d lived here for 14 years and was trying to find the energy to paint again, and get to Klungkung for fabric to re-cover the cushions.  But life was busy and I kept not getting around to it.

A birthday was looming but no plans were afoot.  That was fine with me; I was now in favour of only acknowledging the ones that ended in 0.  A couple of friends suggested going to Amed for a night just prior to the unbirthday and I agreed to go along.  We left at 9 on Friday morning and meandered lazily around Karangasem for that day and the next, sleeping at the new little eco resort Balila Beach outside of Amed.

It seems that at 0905 on Friday a small army of friends, tukangs, electricians and pembantus descended on my humble cottage.  Five weeks of intensive planning, many spreadsheets and truckloads of materials came together in a whirlwind two-day home makeover.  At times there were 20 people beavering away in my little house.  The interior was completely repainted with a new feature wall, lights repositioned and new shades installed, new shelving and curtains fitted, the seating area expanded, reupholstered and loaded with cushions and the bed linen replaced with fine Egyptian cotton and goose down pillows.

I am not particularly observant, especially when 10 of my friends are industriously pulling the wool over my eyes and purloining my keys. I had no clue.  I arrived back home at 8 on Saturday night to find my house utterly transformed and a noisy group of smug, exhausted and slightly drunk friends finishing off the birthday dinner I’d missed.  It was the most gobsmacking, mind-blowingly amazing birthday present ever conceived.  My fresh and delightful new house looked like something out of a magazine.  I still can’t believe the amount of time, planning, designing, shopping, making, work and resources that went into this epic act of love.  How I cherish the dear, mad friends from Ubud, Sydney, Arizona, Barcelona and Macau who made this happen.  You know who you are.

The next morning I wandered the house in daylight, marveling at the lilac bathroom and mirrored kitchen.  But where were my carpets?

I found them rolled up in the laundry shed, deemed too grubby to return to my now spotless abode.  Oh, the shame.  Then I remembered Farah’s, an Ubud shop selling hand woven carpets.  Soon a nice gentleman came and took my shocking carpets to Denpasar where the evidence of canine misbehavior was professionally removed.

The carpets are back, gleaming like jewels again.  They are a little worn after our 25 years together, but so am I.   Another quarter century of dogs and dust will give us all that much more character.