By Meredith Brown

Upon arrival in Bali, your heart breaks for the hordes of mangy, pitiful-looking dogs that roam the streets. The majority of dogs seen on Bali’s streets have a place to which they “belong,” but this is not ownership in the Western context. A Bali dog may “belong” to a family, community, temple or business, but this does not mean that the people involved will necessarily give food or water or otherwise assume responsibility for its care. Many Bali dogs have no choice but to scavenge food from rubbish dumps and temple offerings.

By removing the food supply of rats and other vermin, the dogs have a valuable place in the island’s ecosystem. They have roamed the island for thousands of years but many visitors to the island are unaware of the history and situation of the Bali dog.

Bali dogs and people come together at Kuta Beach, photo taken by Finy Otsuka

The rabies-related deaths of 15 Balinese people led to mass eliminations of dogs in the fall of 2015 and raised questions about the coexistence of dogs and humans on the island. However, the response failed to acknowledge that illegally imported dogs and non-licensed dogs are getting rabies too.

Each year, millions of tourists flock to the beautiful shores of Bali making the rabies problem all the more alarming for the Indonesian government. With tourism accounting for an estimated 60-70% of Bali’s economy, protecting visitors is a top priority. Herein lies the catch-22 of the rabies problem in Bali: tourists are deterred by mass cullings of dogs but people refuse to vacation in a rabies-ridden locale.

The Balinese government and potential tourists are more than justified in being concerned about rabies. The disease causes significant inflammation of the brain and is nearly always fatal once symptoms begin to show. Rabies is transmitted by animals and the most common method of transmission to humans is through dog bites.

Unfortunately, dog bites are common in Bali. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates more than 4,000 people a month were bitten by dogs in Bali from 2010 to 2012. In early 2015, a 10-year-old Australian girl was bitten at Kuta Beach prompting the governor of Bali, I Made Mangku Pastika, to announce, “If you see a stray dog, just kill it, eliminate it. Don’t let them hang around spreading the disease.” Shortly thereafter, all the dogs at Kuta Beach were violently gathered and culled to the horror of both tourists and locals. The young Australian girl was not even exposed to rabies as the dog that bit her had been vaccinated.

Bali Animal Welfare Association (BAWA), a local non-profit, undertook a successful pilot vaccination program in 2009, a year after the initial rabies outbreak on the island. BAWA then ran an island-wide program between October 2010 and May 2011 which vaccinated more than 75% of the dogs on the island.

“Vaccinating at least 70% of the dogs in an area creates ‘herd immunity’, slowing the spread of rabies until it dies out,” said Jess Oliver, a representative at World Animal Protection (WAP). Since BAWA vaccinated over 70% of the dogs in Bali, this suggests that the program was a rousing success. Comparing the last months of the BAWA program to the previous year, both human and dog rabies cases were reduced by more than 80%.

To their credit, the Balinese government accompanied by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. began mass vaccination projects in 2011 and 2013. However, shortly after the 75% vaccination mark was reached, the Balinese government made the decision to return to culling dogs citing cost and short supply of the rabies vaccine as reasons for the switch.

For islanders with pet dogs implicated in the culls, this is no excuse. I Gusti Agung Kade Dipa Primadana, a 13-year-old Balinese boy, witnessed his two dogs killed in a government culling just last month. “I’m sad Rojer and Beno were eliminated,” the devastated child told Tribun, a Balinese newspaper.

Though it shares features with other breeds, the Bali dog is one-of-a-kind” or “Rabies over-reaction has sparked fear of the typically harmless Bali dog. Photograph taken by Julia Gross.

Unfortunately, this return to culling destroyed much of the herd immunity that had been established through the previous vaccination program. Evidence for why culls are not effective in eliminating rabies points to the fact that culling may cause the surviving dogs to inhabit newly available territory which can further increase the spread of rabies due to more movement of infected dogs.

“It is well documented that vaccination is more cost-effective than culling,” said Janice Girardi, founder of BAWA. “Mass vaccination is the internationally-recognised means — as shown in Bali and elsewhere — to effectively control and eradicate rabies.”

Ms. Girardi is not alone in realizing the economic benefits of vaccination. A joint study carried out by WAP and the UK’s Royal Veterinary College used simulation models over a 10-year time period to examine solutions to the crisis in Bali. One model focused largely on culling with some vaccination (determined not to be effective at stopping the spread of rabies or decreasing the number of dog bites). The other model focused exclusively on a mass vaccination program (determined to be effective in eliminating rabies on the island within 10 years).

The findings were striking in that they showed the significant costs to the government and community that are introduced by culling. Not only is the culling event itself expensive, but the costs of the human post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) drug as well as both the financial and emotional costs of human deaths for families are astronomically high. If Bali were to take an approach similar to the second model, it is estimated that there would be a savings of U.S. $16 million as PEP drugs and other treatments to assist people who have been bitten would not be needed.

While it is culturally acceptable in Bali to let your dog roam freely and be fed by various members of the community, it is not wise in a climate of culls. Ms. Girardi warns that “owners really need to closely watch and monitor their animals and not let them eat from the streets or beaches.” Baits with strychnine (a toxic pesticide) are often placed onto streets and beaches but even heeding Ms. Girardi’s advice may not be enough as government officials have been known to cull on private property.

The practice of culling is even more alarming when considering the uniqueness of the Bali dog. Though genetically related to the Australian Dingo, Chow Chow, and Akita, the Bali dog is unique. At the start of the rabies outbreak in 2008, the dog population in Bali was estimated to be approximately 600,000. Following the recent eliminations of fall 2015, there are now only an estimated 100,000 pure Bali dogs on the island. If numbers continue to fall, the Bali dog could face extinction.

While vaccination is clearly the most prominent answer to eradicating rabies in Bali, community education can also play a big role. In a sociocultural study on the relationships between dogs, humans, and rabies in Bali published in Infectious Diseases of Poverty, researchers examined actions that local Balinese people can take to help eradicate rabies. Findings included introducing concepts of non-violence into education campaigns, engaging communities through the local sociopolitical system, and working with traditional legal structures to increase local compliance with rabies control.

“Village responsibility for population stability and animal welfare is key,” says Ms. Girardi. BAWA’s vision is for an island on which all traditional communities are natural sanctuaries for animals. A pilot program with this goal is meeting with success.

Currently, provincial bylaws restrict the movement of animals that may carry rabies and require owners of potential carriers to give proper attention to the health and welfare of the animal. These laws leave ample room for interpretation and are rarely enforced. Thus, it seems clear that we cannot expect current Indonesian law to save the Bali dog.

When culling is replaced by vaccination and community education programs, there may be realistic hope for the survival of the beautiful Bali dog. As Eric Brum, a rabies expert and chief technical adviser for the U.N. agriculture agency, so eloquently told The New York Times, “the problem is not the dogs — it’s the virus.”