Sunday, December 6, 2009

My encounter with dog meat in Eastern Indonesia

When people find out that I'm a vegetarian, the usual question to follow is some variant of "What's your reason?"

And while I could list any number of reasons (it's healthier, it's more environmentally friendly, I don't like eating something that used to have a face), there is a story I only sometimes tell which was a pretty significant nail in the coffin of my meat-eating ways. And here it is...

My parents own a house in Wanokaka, on the Indonesian island of Sumba. It's a long way from the smoggy urban jungle that is Jakarta, where my mother grew up. Sumba is in the South Eastern part of Indonesia, between Bali and Timor. It's long been underdeveloped, with electricity still a luxury in most parts of the island. The people are subsistence farmers, growing mostly rice, and raising livestock that is rarely actually eaten (it's primarily used for trade and dowry).

My Mum is not Sumbanese, but my folks did some work on the island a long time ago and built up relationships with some local villagers, who became like a second family. So my parents go back every year and help with the kids' schooling, giving monetary assistance for the needs of the village, and my Dad helps out with the medical needs of some of the locals. So they are well-thought of in the Wanokaka valley.

On one such trip I accompanied them. I was about 18 and had been to Sumba a number of times already in my childhood. And while it was and is a beautiful place with beautiful people, it had shown me from a young age the raw reality of life on a farm - that when you want to eat meat, something has to die.

It was for that reason that I wasn't too keen on the meat when in Sumba. Meat was hardly plentiful anyway, since the numerous buffalo and pigs were too valuable to kill if it wasn't a special occasion. So I was eating a lot of noodles, fried eggs, greens, the occasional bit of fish or chicken. And while pork was the favoured meat of the Wanokakans when available (they are Christian and animist), I wasn't such a big fan; my Mum, being a Javanese Muslim, had subconsciously inculcated me with a suspicion of swine flesh.

One day, my parents informed me that we had been invited to a feast at a neighbouring village. I was lazy and not that interested to go. But I was informed that non-attendance would be disrespectful on my part. "They are very keen to meet you," Dad said. "Besides, they have already killed a dog for us to eat. It would be rude not to accept after they have already done that."

I froze at this point. Dog? Yes, dog. The Sumbanese hold none of the food taboos that Indonesia's Muslim majority do. Both pig and dog are haram to the Muslim, for reasons of cleanliness, and probably also due to the dog's carnivorous nature. But in the Christian and animist regions of Indonesia, pig is much-loved, while dog, if not held in quite the same esteem, makes for a handy source of protein. Dogs are common on the island and not expensive to keep - they eat mostly scraps. And while they are valued as a kind of security alarm system (livestock theft being fairly common), they are certainly not doted on in the way that Westerners do with their dogs.

Sumbanese dogs are scruffy mongrels who are not especially endearing to a cat-person like me. Nonetheless, I do admire canines as a species, and the thought of eating one filled me with trepidation. But I didn't want to be rude by not attending, and besides, my folks weren't really giving me a choice.

"Ok I'll come," I told them, "but I don't know if I can handle dog meat."

We headed over to the neighbouring village and sat on the verandah of their traditional house. Being fairly lax in my Indonesian language skills, I didn't involve myself much in conversation. I was too busy thinking about the meal that was to come.

The Sumbanese raise buffalo, pigs, horses, dogs and chickens. While they can potentially eat all of these, it is not so common to do so. On a day-to-day basis, the diet is only rice, complemented by whatever vegetables they can grow, plus anything they might manage to catch from the wild, such as fish or the occasional bird. Eggs are common for those who can afford it. Their livestock is rarely eaten because it must be saved for more important purposes - to be exchanged between the families of a marrying couple, or to be sacrificed (and later eaten) at an event like a funeral or celebration. Or when honoured guests visit, which was where we came in.

Looking past the seated people, out front of another hut, I could see the carcass of the dog which was to be our meal. It wasn't a particularly cute-looking animal by any means, but I couldn't help but feel bad for it. All of a sudden Dad was there, standing over the dead beast and taking snapshots of it - part forensic photographer at a crime scene, part over-enthusiastic tourist. It struck me as somehow disrespectful to the poor creature.

Shortly, the food arrived: the ever-present rice, a little chili sambal, some leafy vegetable. And a bowl of greyish-looking chunks of meat. Shudder. My Dad took some of the meat, out of obligation. It was his first taste of canine, and he reported that it wasn't particularly great. I'm not sure if this was the meat itself, or how it was cooked, or dog meat in general. My Mum had a convenient excuse for not partaking; as a Muslim, she was not allowed to.

So then, to me. I couldn't use that excuse. As I looked at the bowl of cooked dog flesh in front of me, a certain image stuck in my mind. You know that sad, begging look that dogs give you? Puppy-dog eyes, it's often called. Well that image was all I could think of, and it was all too apparent that the chopped-up bits of meat before me had only an hour ago been a living, breathing animal. And as a dog, an animal capable of being friendly, cute and intelligent.

I couldn't bring myself to try any. And try as I might, I couldn't hold back the tears that were welling up in my eyes.

"What's wrong with your son?" one of the villagers asked my Mum.

"Well, in Australia, dogs are not eaten, and they are seen as pets, and people love them a lot. So he is a bit sad for the dog."

They nodded, no doubt feeling a bit bad, perhaps embarrassed that their hospitality might have been seen as a faux pas. This of course made me feel worse.

One of them had a bright idea. Not wishing to shirk their responsibilities to cater for their guests, he said, "No problem. Does he eat chicken?"

"Yes," I said, "but please, don't worry about it." It was dawning on me what was about to happen.

He seemed pleased by what he saw as a clearly affirmative answer, and sent one of the other men round the back. I was going to be served some chicken. And they certainly had no fridge in which they might have been saving some chicken fillets, and they weren't nipping up to the local shops to buy some. The only chicken meat in that village was still walking around.

Now I felt even worse. It was bad enough that people were eating dog around me. But now, another animal was going to meet its end, just for me. I wasn't even hungry.

The chicken, when it came, was nice enough. It had been cooked over the fire, and I ate a bit. It didn't make me feel any better. Although the irony of the situation - because of my aversion to an animal being killed, another animal was killed - allowed me to even see a funny side, despite being upset.

Now, I didn't become vegetarian then and there. It probably wasn't another 2 years before I gave up my meat-eating ways. By that stage, I was at university, surrounded by left-wing radicals, and had made 2 close friends who were vegan. But the seeds had been sown that day in Wanokaka, that is certain. Meat had suddenly acquired an ugly stain in my mind which previously I had been able to ignore.

Why, I had to ask myself, did I get so emotional about the killing and eating of a dog - whereas I had happily eaten steaks and burgers and chicken schnitzels time and time again without suffering any pangs of regret. Sure, dogs are cute and friendly and admirable beasts. But is a cow so different? Or a lamb, a chicken or a pig? A cow's personality may not resonate with a human being in the same way as a dog's or cat's, but does it not have feelings also?

I decided it was hypocritical of me to dread the killing of one kind of animal, yet celebrate the killing of another, by consuming its flesh. Add to that the environmental impacts of meat production, and the choice became increasingly clear to me.

I'm not saying that my way is better than anyone else's. I don't think that anyone is a worse person for eating meat; indeed, it is the norm of human existence. But for me, someone who abhors violence and adores animals, I need to be consistent in my principles. And meat-eating just doesn't fit comfortably amongst those principles.

See also:

Jakarta travel notes

Indonesia travel notes, March 2006

The Malaysian-Indian food experience

Bangkok, part 1

Bangkok, part 2

What dishes truly define Malaysian cuisine?

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