Sniper, a dog story (part one)
In Bali, we adopted a village-dog puppy we named Nana. She and her sister found their way, at about seven weeks of age, to the workplace of our neighbor. The office security people there were about to throw them against a wall, the customary way to kill puppies.
The dog situation in Bali is always out of control. Many dogs run wild, some with rabies, especially in the villages. Puppies can be born with rabies, a disease that kills them and the people they bite. Every once in a while, the government issues an order for the police to « thin the pack ». The last time this happened the dog death squad shot about nine thousand dogs.
So, the situation in Bali is different than other places. Once in a while, I would wake up in the middle of the night and look out on the street. Making their way silently, five or six very strong, healthy, wild dogs were carefully checking the garbage at each house. Medium-sized, strong village dogs, streamlined, well proportioned, like a pack of tropical wolves, they commanded respect and some fear. The street belonged to them. Once the sun was up they disappeared, vanished like the night.
Minutes before the puppies were about to be killed, our neighbor, Hanny, got involved and saved them. He is a nice man and took on this responsibility despite having two dogs himself. Hanny offered us one of sisters and I refused knowing how much a dog changes your life, no matter how great it is. But I have always had dogs and my wife also loves dogs so I took a careful look and I saw that one of them had long legs like a ballet dancer and perfect proportions, some kind of a Dalmatian mix with black and white patches. We named her Nana.
We brought her with us from Bali to Surabaya and settled in. She is a great dog but not in the way we know from Labradors and Goldens and Shepherds, dogs like that. A village dog has literally thousands of years of DNA tweaked by their special lives lived surviving on the street, avoiding endless dangers including poison. They are not the loyal dog we know who can’t wait to lay down its life for you, not like that. They don’t trust easily ; it takes time, but they are more interesting and a lot smarter than the « normal » dog but paradoxically not in trainability. A friend who has had one of these dogs for many years cautioned, « There are some things they just won’t do ». In some ways, they are smart more in the way a cat is smart. It is difficult to explain. I tell a good friend, a veterinarian, that she is more like a fox than a dog and that seems almost right.
We moved to Manyar, East Surabaya, into an old but decent house in a middle-class neighborhood, a great location convenient to important things in our life. During walks around, we noticed up the street about six houses from us, that a group of black people were living in a communal way, so it seemed. It was not clear how many people were there. We heard they were from Papua, New Guinea. Later, I found out that the Indonesian government sponsors some the « best and brightest » to come to Surabaya to get an education since Papua is still quite primitive. I also learned that less than fifty percent finish their studies. Aside from being black and looking aboriginal, they are Christian, not Muslim, and they like to drink.
None of that would have made a difference to me even if I knew it before interacting with them since I try to take people for who they are. We stopped when we encountered them, said hi, and then came inside to talk with the leader. This was Vincent, who also had some political agenda as part of his mission, probably Papua Independence or some iteration of that. He was friendly and spoke good English and it seemed to me they were lucky for his guidance and leadership.
There was a dog loosely connected with this commune, a dog named Sniper. We saw him around the neighborhood going through the garbage here and there, galivanting happily. Sniper is a border collie. He is a medium-sized dog about like Nana but with big bones, strong, compact. He was about two years old at the time and Nana only one year old.
Our house, like most in the area, has a wall and a big iron gate. At some point, we noticed that Sniper was coming by in the afternoon. Normally, Nana, at that time in her life, would bark at anything, the endless neighborhood street cats, vendors, butterflies, anything. But not with Sniper, not a peep. I am not sure how long it had been going on before we noticed. They would just be there together on either side of the gate talking and kissing between the vertical stiles of the heavy gate.
Writers get in trouble attributing human characteristics to other forms of life and inanimate things too. It is called « pathetic fallacy » which is to say « you must be a dummy and we feel sorry for you if you think like that ». Personally, I am not prone to that kind of thinking, although I do ponder that we share forty percent of our genes with a corn stalk, so it seems we are all connected more closely than we normally think.
This love fest with Sniper and Nana went on every day. In my long experience, I had never seen anything like it. It was Romeo and Juliet or Lady and the Tramp, Disney’s masterpiece. I even downloaded the movie to remember what he knew about this kind of dog love. And that is what it was, total unabashed love.
We didn’t know much about Sniper’s personality beyond what we saw in his relationship to Nana. And, by the way, we had her « fixed » at an early age so the pheromones were not responsible. Because of how close they were and how happy they were to be in each other’s company we decided to let him in and see what would happen. And what happened was total ecstasy for them and a lot of vicarious pleasure for us. They played and romped and wrestled and kissed and smelled and raced to exhaustion, except exhaustion never happened.
When we felt it was time, we let Sniper out, back to his life on the street, a free dog. And he respected that play time was over. Border collies are considered at the top of dog smartness but, paradoxically, they are stubborn and not easy to train unless they want to be trained, a little like that famous Japanese dog, Hachiko. Beyond that I need to say now, that although he is a border collie and consequently smart, he is nowhere near our village dog, Nana, in the brightness category.
This went on for weeks and we earned Sniper’s trust and found that he had a beautiful face and a warm, loving disposition. We fell in love with him for himself and also because of Nana’s love for him. With love comes concern and responsibility. We were worried about him living on the street eating garbage, dodging cars, avoiding poison people put out. Dogs are Haram to Muslims and this is a Muslim majority country. Haram is like not kosher but stronger. They hate dogs mostly and fear being bitten or even kissed which is something even more terrible somehow, and so poison is part of what street dogs need to avoid if they want to keep living. Throw in whatever else they might eat from the garbage and endless interaction with cars and motorcycles and it is only a very cautious, intelligent animal that will survive.
And so, we made our way over to Sniper’s « people » and sat down with Vincent and asked if it would be ok for us to « take care of him » from now on since we were concerned about him and wanted to protect him from the hard life of the street. Vincent was fine with that, not caring really, and happy to do something we wanted. It didn’t seem to make much difference to him one way or the other. And so, we took charge and brought Sniper into our life without many difficulties or adjustments, just the normal settling in, learning the routines that are so important to the man-dog relationship.
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