Bali Stories: Winnie (Part 1)

In Bali, one often acquires a pet without really thinking about it. In fact, once known in the neighbourhood as a soft touch, folk can land up with five or six, as unwanted puppies are abandoned on the doorstep, or close to.

That’s because most Balinese don’t have the money to buy surgery for granny, let alone their dogs, so by way of contraception they abandon female puppies and keep the chaps.

Our third attempt at finding a house in Bali landed us in Seseh, an absolutely dazzling seaside village ‘twixt Canggu and Tanah Lot, in a luscious-looking two-bedroom villa, a steal at around US$600 per month.

Further, it was an over-contract – in Bali, rentals are usually paid upfront, so if foreigners leave before their contract is complete, they sell the remaining months on their lease – so we didn’t have to commit for any significant time.

And our over-contractor was absolutely lovely – a cool, American single mum, and the first single mum I’d met in Bali. She had, in the way of dog-lovers moving to Bali, rescued a small army of dogs.

Made, the helper, was taking three to live in her village; two had been rehoused with fellow bule. And then there was Winnie. Gorgeous, floppy-eared, forlorn Winnie, who didn’t seem to know how to be a puppy at all.

Could we take Winnie and look after her until time came to ship her to the States? Well, yes, we could. That way we could try out both country living AND pet ownership, and see how they suited us.

You open the gate in the morning to let them do their dog thing with their fellow dogs – napping, mainly, with the odd bit of bottom-sniffing, bin-foraging and intimidating passing bule for variation.

Owning a dog in Bali, should you do it Bali style, is not a particularly strenuous activity. Bali dogs, as Made explained, ‘like to be free’. That means you open the gate in the morning to let them do their dog thing with their fellow dogs – napping, mainly, with the odd bit of bottom-sniffing, bin-foraging and intimidating passing bule for variation – and bring them in at night.

The Balinese do not walk their dogs, figuring that if a dog wants to go for a run, or investigate a neighbourhood, it will, which makes dog-walking a perennial source of tension between expats and their staff. It’s not at all unusual to see a sulky-looking Balinese riding a scooter at funereal speed, with a leashed dog scampering behind, with a general air of ‘If you insist on this insane project of making dogs walk places, for god’s sake do it yourself.’

Further, Bali dogs don’t eat dog food. They like chicken and rice, which Made would prepare. All in all, unlike high-maintenance Western dogs, Winnie was the kind of short-term pet that both Zac and I, even as non-dog people with zero puppy experience, could happily sign up to.

Even if she resolutely refused to play with her ball, or her squeaky toy, or show any interest in the sticks we desultorily threw, and seemed positively resentful about being removed from the beds. As Made put it, ‘She’s missing her friends.’ Yet having already inflicted two dogs on her long-suffering husband’s family, there was no space for poor, forlorn Winnie.

‘Is this your dog?’ asks a tanned surfer type who subsequently turns out to be my neighbour, rather accusingly, holding out an unusually limp and depressed-looking Winnie for my inspection.

I am fresh back from Malapascua, and grapping with the vicissitudes of rural Balinese internet, when the gate opens.

‘Is this your dog?’ asks a tanned surfer type who subsequently turns out to be my neighbour, rather accusingly, holding out an unusually limp and depressed-looking Winnie for my inspection.

‘Er, yeah,’ I say, guiltily.

‘The mother dog just went for her,’ she says. ‘Did you not hear it?’

While I can easily filter child noise and reflexively parse it for signs of distress, I have no ear for dog noise. I look at Winnie. She’s even more forlorn than usual, and there are two puncture marks in her neck.

‘What should I do?’ I ask, helplessly. ‘I don’t know anything about dogs. I’m just looking after Winnie until she goes to the States.’

We apply iodine, but there’s something weird about her neck – it’s oddly swollen, and she’s snuffling for breath.

It is decided that we should summon the vet. Or, rather, summon Made, who can inspect Winnie and decide whether the vet is required. And so Winnie is shipped off to Sunset Vet, the bule veterinarian of choice, while I hope against hope that she survives – I can imagine few things worse when it comes to dog care than the pet actually dying on my watch.

Winnie is even more forlorn than usual. She’s on medication, which we have to hide in her food. Probably relatedly, she is off said food.

On release from the vet, Winnie is even more forlorn than usual, and skinnier. She’s on medication, which we have to hide in her food. Probably relatedly, she is off said food. And, further, she is now of an age to require walking, says the vet.

Zac and I hold a summit meeting. We ARE, we decide, going to do this properly. We will buy a leash, and take Winnie for walks on the beach like a foreign dog. We will spend a small fortune on stupidly expensive pet food so that she gains weight. She might be born Balinese, we conclude, but Winnie’s lifestyle aspirations are firmly Western.

And so it begins. Winnie does not like her leash.

Nor does Winnie like going for walks. She’s terrified of the dog that bit her, a long-haired yeti-type creature that hangs out down our gang, who is, apparently, a sweetheart except where food is involved. I literally have to drag her out of the house.

Yet, the more we walk her, the more socialised she becomes. She stops and sniffs at other dogs – occasionally yapping at them, rather unnervingly. We interact with other dog-owners, like dog people. And, like dog people, when we find two stray puppies by the side of the road, we enter into the twilight world of Bali dog lovers and ring someone to pick them up.

And we bump into our lovely neighbour again. Which is odd, because at the sight of her dog, Winnie goes into a weird snuffling state.

‘That’s odd,’ she says. ‘It’s like she’s having some kind of fit.’

Oh god, I think. It would be just our luck to adopt the kind of dog that really needs a dog psychiatrist. ‘What should I do about it?’ I ask.

‘I think she just needs lots and lots of cuddles,’ she says.

OK. Zac and I can do that, surely?

One benefit of country life? You watch a lot of films when your only restaurant in walking distance is a small pizza warung and you’re the only customers.

One benefit of country life? You watch a lot of films when your only restaurant in walking distance is a small pizza warung and you’re the only customers. So Zac and I are happily immersed in a movie when Winnie jumps on the couch and starts running up and down it.

This seems both odd and unlikely to improve the cushions, so I pick her up and put her on the floor. She jumps back on, and pees on the couch.

This is beyond the pale, so Zac picks her up to remove her. Whereupon she twists in mid-air, bites him on the hand and races off to lurk in the bushes.

‘She BIT me!’ he says.

‘Well, she can’t have rabies,’ I say. ‘She’s already had her shots. Let me check.’

I dig out Winnie’s vaccination book. She has not had her rabies shots. She’s too young to start them. Bugger. ‘Did it break the skin?’ I ask.

‘No,’ Zac says. ‘Just dented.’

‘You still need to wash it,’ I say. ‘Really thoroughly.’

I Google rabies, the start of a search so thorough that for months Google is serving me ads for post-grad qualifications in tropical medicine.

We’ve had our pre-shots, although we’re not entirely up to date, so I’m more relaxed than I might otherwise be. Google tells me that the single most important step in preventing rabies is washing for fifteen minutes with soap and water, then dousing in iodine or alcohol. Zac does exactly that.

‘In Bali, we have a rule that if a dog bites a human and then dies within ten days there’s a 70% chance of rabies.’

The only sign of Winnie is the occasional rustle from the bushes, and the glint of green eyes in the darkness. This is not normal, I decide. Definitely not normal. And…. Oh fuck! She was bitten by a dog a fortnight before.

I ring Made to explain the situation, but she clearly feels I’m exaggerating. ‘Winnie can’t have rabies,’ she says.

‘Well, she’s behaving really oddly, and she did bite Zac,’ I say. ‘And remember, she was bitten by another dog.’

We to and fro, and conclude that Made will pop round in the morning to decide whether it’s Winnie or me that’s gone mental. Zac and I are fairly sure it’s Winnie, who is shaking and glinting in the bushes, but mercifully on the fearful, rather than the aggressive, side of whatever altered state she’s in.

It is not a restful night’s sleep for either of us, unsure whether we’ll be confronted with a slavering maniac of a puppy in the morning, or a puppy on the equivalent of an acid comedown, or even a dead puppy.

The vets arrive, armed with Bali’s most high-tech rabid puppy protection, AKA two tatty and rather tired-looking blue towels, and, in a neat flanking motion, extricate Winnie from the bushes.

It takes Made approximately three seconds of inspecting the terrified, disoriented, cowering, slinking, paranoid creature in the bushes to conclude that Winnie is mental and I am right, and ring the vet.

The vets arrive, armed with Bali’s most high-tech rabid puppy protection, AKA two tatty blue towels, execute a neat flanking motion, and extricate Winnie from the bushes. They know Winnie well, as much of her short life has been spent in and out of the vet with one ailment or another: like a Victorian child, she’s sickly.

‘Could it be rabies?’ I ask.

‘I don’t know,’ he says. ‘In Bali, we have a rule that if a dog bites a person and then dies within ten days there’s a 70% chance of rabies.’

The vets depart. Made sets off on the bike with Zac to get him a top-up rabies shot at Bali Royal Hospital, which, according to her sister, has the appropriate rabies medication.

I am torn between the Scylla of not mentioning a potential rabies issue to a parent whose children play with a possible carrier, and the Charybdis of Winnie recovering and me looking like a complete neurotic freak.

If there’s an activity less conducive to productive self-employment than Googling rabies, I cannot easily identify it.

I hit the phones and receive a range of contrasting advice from sources as diverse as the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases and the expats’ fave clinic in Sanur.

It appears that Zac is more than likely to have full immunity but might not. Ideally, a titre test would be required. But they can’t do titre tests on Bali. So he should do the full course of shots, but not have Human Rabies Immunoglobulin, a substance so rare on Bali that it’s reserved for people who’ve been fully savaged by slavering dogs and anyone who’s just worried about a monkey bite or a dodgy-looking stray has to fly to Singapore and spend thousands of dollars (or ask their travel insurers to cover same).

Further, one of our other sets of neighbours have two small and delightful children who routinely play with the dog that bit Winnie. I am torn between the Scylla of not mentioning a potential rabies issue to a parent whose children play with a possible carrier, and the Charybdis of Winnie recovering leaving me looking like a complete neurotic freak.

In the end, I decide to do nothing for the moment.

Ignoring all advice from interested parties of ‘for god’s sake, get rid of the bloody dog’, Zac and I decide that we will go and visit her, and bring her a toy to play with while she gets well.

Made reports back regularly from the vet. Finally, it appears, Winnie is recovering. Ignoring all advice from interested parties of ‘for god’s sake, get rid of the bloody dog’, and breathing a quiet sigh of relief that I’ve mentioned nothing to the neighbours, Zac and I decide that we will go and visit her, and bring her a toy to play with while she gets well.

I delve deeply into the weird and wonderful world of dog psychology blogs (ladies! Gays! Get a load of this chap!), and Zac and I solemnly decide that we need to set boundaries and establish ourselves as pack alphas.

But, first, a toy for poor Winnie, who is, after all, only a puppy – and a much-loved puppy, with our over-contractor and her nine-year-old daughter still apparently awaiting her in America.

And so, we pootle into Seminyak. ‘Hello,’ I say brightly. ‘We’ve come to see Winnie.’

They seem a little surprised, but take us through.

‘Sometimes she seems to be hallucinating and becomes aggressive, other times, like now, she’s close to paralytic.’

Winnie is in a cage, in isolation, both food and water bowl untouched. She is slumped, emaciated, apparently comatose, with the nictitating membrane – a rabies signifier – covering her eyes. Zac and I look at each other, shocked. She is clearly extremely sick. Poor Winnie.

We are five days into the ten day wait for information.

‘So how is she?’ I ask, dumbly.

‘She isn’t drinking water,’ says the vet. ‘Sometimes she seems to be hallucinating and becomes aggressive, other times, like now, she’s close to paralytic.’

‘So you think it’s rabies?’ I say.

‘We don’t know,’ he says. ‘She definitely has serious neurological problems.’ And then he repeats the 70% rule.

I know, from Google, that the only way rabies can be diagnosed in animals is to cut off their head and take a sample from the brain. And so it seems best just to wait.

‘Today,’ he says, with a firmness that is most unBalinese. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s late. You should always start treatment as soon as possible.’

It is then that I remember the open wound – a motorbike exhaust burn, AKA a Bali tattoo, Bali kiss, or idiot scar – on my lower leg, and that Winnie has been licking in the vicinity of said wound. It’s now well over a week since any exposure.

I feel slightly sick. I only covered the wound after Zac pointed out that Winnie was trying to lick it and it was unhygienic.

‘You know she bit Zac,’ I say. ‘And she licked near an open wound on my leg. Zac’s having his shots, but I didn’t get any more for me, because I had a booster two and a half years ago, and now it’s been over a week since she bit me. Do you think I need to get shots?’

‘Definitely,’ he says. ‘You can go to Siloam, it’s just down the road.’

‘Today?’ I say, feebly.

‘Today,’ he says, with a firmness that is most unBalinese. ‘It doesn’t matter if it’s late. You should always start treatment as soon as possible. Late is better than nothing.’

We whirl down Sunset at a rate of knots, screech into the parking lot at Siloam, and park in the nearest available space. ‘You can’t park here,’ says an official, with unusually un-Balinese firmness.

‘I need rabies shots!’ I jabber.

‘You still can’t park here,’ he says, then, softening. ‘This is where the dead bodies come in.’

It takes about 5 minutes to give me the shots, and 30 minutes for the doctor to explain why I’m on a different schedule from Zac.

In a brief phase of contemplation, I question quite intensely how I would live my life if I did have the rabies virus in my system, and if I did only have six months more on this earth. I leave a bunch of Facebook groups and resolve to spend less time on social media.

I’d rather have any number of dogs shot than a single child die of rabies, which goes to show, I guess, that I am not a dog person.

Back at base, Zac and I decide that it is now an appropriate time to tell the neighbours. As a way to meet the neighbours, ‘Hi! We recently moved in next door and our puppy might have rabies, and she was bitten by a dog your kids play with, and we’re only telling you now it’s too late to do anything about it,’ takes some beating, although they’re terribly nice about it.

‘Could it be distemper?’ he asks.

‘No,’ I say. ‘The vet’s definite it’s not distemper, and she’s had her shots for that.’

‘But the dog seems like such a nice dog,’ he says. ‘She’s a good dog. They play with her all the time.’

I unleash the fruits of Google research, saying that there might be some dogs that are asymptomatic carriers. I promise that I’ll keep him updated. He asks intelligent questions about whether Winnie was aggressive.

Then we tell next door. They are not best pleased. ‘You’ll need to tell me if they do a round-up,’ she says. ‘Otherwise they’ll just come round and shoot every dog they can find.’

I haven’t witnessed one of Bali’s rabies round-ups, but, apparently, at the peak of the eradication campaign, dead dogs were piled high in the streets. On the other hand, I’d rather have any number of dogs shot than a single child die of rabies, which goes to show, I guess, that I am not a dog person.

‘Both my dogs died last night,’ she says. ‘Wha’?!’ I say. ‘Like Winnie?!’ ‘No, no, it wasn’t rabies. We think my neighbour poisoned them,’ she says, adding, to eliminate further doubt, ‘She’s Javanese.’

The next morning, Made calls, tearful. ‘Both my dogs died last night,’ she says.

‘Wha’?!’ I say. ‘Like Winnie?!’

‘No, no, it wasn’t rabies. We think my neighbour poisoned them,’ she says, adding, to eliminate further doubt, ‘She’s Javanese.’ (The Indonesian archipelago is a web of passionate hatreds between neighbouring islands: in Hindu-majority Bali, it’s Muslim-majority Java that cops it.)

‘We need to make a decision,’ she says. ‘Winnie is not going to get well, and it’s cruel to leave her like that. Plus, we need to know! My daughter played with Winnie! I’m so WORRIED.’

I enquire whether she’s called America yet. ‘Not yet,’ she says. ‘She was so sad, I didn’t want to worry her.’

‘OK,’ I say. ‘I’ll take the decision. It’s my decision, and I’ll take the blame, but because it’s you who’s talking to her, you need to break the news.’

‘Poor Winnie,’ says Zac. ‘I don’t like to think of her like that. Just a head, cut off, on ice, and in a box going to the lab.’

‘Nor do I, son,’ I say. ‘Nor do I.’

It can take up to three days for the results to come back from the government lab. And, as I walk down our darkened gang to our house, the dog that bit Winnie comes barking out of the darkness, accompanied by the neighbours’ dogs, Hound of the Baskervilles style.

I scream like a girl and leap in the air. I am, I decide, quivering, definitely not a dog person.

Read Part 2 here. Various of you have expressed interest in reading some of the posts I didn’t write last year. So I’m going to put them up from time to time under the heading ‘Bali Stories’.

6 Responses

  1. Sabine says:

    This brought back floods of memories.
    We lived on a small island in the Indian Ocean for several years and received puppies as tokens of “friendship” (we were suckers, yes) and while thankfully no rabies existed, we all got worms many times over from the dogs regardless of how careful we were, several of them, in fact all but one, died of odd poisoning, either directly or having eaten a poisoned rat or bat or an old fish head, and all of the dogs were weird, to put it mildly. The only vet explained it eventually: inbreeding plus malnutrition. You could – theoretically – make a fortune by importing a coiuple of really sturdy and healthy European mongrels and start the dog population afresh?

    • Theodora says:

      The Balinese are really proud of Bali dogs, which are allegedly a unique species – they’re certainly recognisable. And probably horribly inbred – although not so inbred as the cats, which all have horrible stumpy tails. Oddly, there’s a fashion now among Balinese to get expensive, “imported” (or, rather, custom-bred) dogs, rather than the local mongrel population. I am CONSTANTLY having to restrain myself from adopting kittens, in fact. A friend of mine did precisely that at new year. There are just so many unwanted animals lying around, it’s almost untrue….

  2. Adrian leak says:

    Thanks so much for these posts. It has been so much fun and a pleasure reading them over the last few years. You have such a great turn of phrase. So glad you covered the rabies stories. Would be great to read about 48 hrs in Ubud.

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you, Adrian! I had no idea you’d been reading me for so long – but thank you! I’ll definitely do a 48 hours in Ubud this month, as one of my helpful pieces – but we’re travelling on Monday so it’ll probably be later in the month….

  3. I truly miss your stories, Theodora! Can’t wait to read the sequel!

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