Poppa C, my professor/mentor/best friend my last year at university told me that he believed the way people treated animals on a day-to-day basis was revealing of how they would treat humans in times of crisis. (This is a guy who loves rabbits and seemingly all causes of national liberation, including the hopeless ones.) He observed certain malais in 1999 in Timor mistreating the many scrawny cats at his hotel, kicking them, cursing their presence. And these were the first people to bail and ditch the Timorese when things got dicey after the Referendum.
The Timorese, being a protein-starved, Asian people have a fascinating relationship with man’s best friend. Dogs are considered to be friends here, but when push comes to shove, more than anything great security. And after a little too much palm wine, a very manly and tasty meal.
When I arrived at this house in Lecidere there were three dogs here. I was unaware of the fact they had basically just moved in. The dogs were all on a strict diet of Kibbles and Bits, from a big imported bag of malai dog food.
One was a nice healthy looking white dog with black ears. He was the malai dog. But he was very naughty. Always squeezing through the bushes and fencing onto the busy street outside. Second was a smaller white dog, male, who was the most playful from the beginning. I actually was able to play fetch with him a couple of times. Then there was the black bitch with one eye. She was skittish from the very beginning, growling whenever I got close to her.
After one of my trips to the field, I came back and the bitch had given birth to three black puppies. She got MUCH meaner after this. Unfortunately she chose to rear her pups in the outer pathway to my room. So I began passing through the house, avoiding the outside path, as I was really scared of her. Recently she started sleeping under the bench outside of my room (which has an outside door, the only exit.)
So when I opened the door to leave in the morning, she was there growling at me. So I slammed the door and was prisoner in my room until I could get Quim, apparently alpha wolf, to come and save me. Now after a few times being shooed away she has not returned to my door.
I asked if they couldn’t move her puppies to the back of the compound, and they told me they had tried but they were too scared of her. The Bitch is exercising a reign of fear over the house!
Meanwhile, fat malai dog it turns out, has disappeared. It’s been two weeks, which according to the Senhora Dra, in charge at the office here, means he has been “hunted.”
She said, I would know, I live close by, around these parts people hunt dogs. Any other place I’ve ever lived this would sound like an urban legend. But this is true. Taxis driving along the beach road will simply sweep up fat dogs and take them to barbeque. I said, but what if they put a collar on the dog to indicate that he was “esteemed”. She said, all the more appealing, a fat esteemed dog!
I will spare animal lovers the details, but I have been told how a dog barbeque proceeds and it involves gasoline. Eating dog here, like in many Asian countries, is considered a very macho activity.
In fact the word for “hero” in Tetum is asuain, or dog’s foot. The dog is the most heroic of animals, associated with war and honor. The most powerful myths about Xanana was that he could shape shift into a dog to escape danger.
That said, many Timorese treat dogs like “western” pets, naming them, creating very sentimental emotional ties to them. This is what makes the “dog hunting” such a seemingly horrible crime. Many families have lost more than one pet dog to these cruel poachers.
But the disrespect for “esteemed” animals does not end with dogs.
Senhora Dra told the story of a baby goat that she was given as a present for her anniversary. She said the family decided not to eat the goat, becoming quite attached to him, naming him and taking up out to feed just in front of the house.
(This reminds me of an amazing Clarice Lispector story called “The Chicken.”)
The goat got bigger and bigger. One day it disappeared. She said the whole family sat around in a state of shock and sadness after losing their goat. Maybe, they thought, we should have just eaten him right away.
Later they found out that their next-door neighbors had made an elaborate plan to steal the goat, paying some thieves to take it!