WARNING: This article contains observations which some may find disturbing.
The twelve plump bulls look superb. Their black skins gleam in the shafting daybreak sunshine, proof of good health and care. In an Aussie country show they’d be winning trophies, their breeders backslapped.
Here in urban Sawojajar, East Java, they’re also on display and much admired. Tethered on grass, along with two dozen goats, they ruminate in the shade of a temporary tin-sheet shelter. All are male and entire. However, they’re not aggressive for they’ve been hand-reared. Necklace labels list the seven donors who spent AUD 270 each to buy a share.
The affection continues even after sale. Much patting by the excited little kids gathered to watch the recreation of an ancient ritual, much like crowds mustered for public hangings.
(The last Australian spectacle was in 1854, in UK 1868 and the US in 1936.)
Indonesia’s domestic Bos taurus are so trusting, so content they clearly enjoy the stroking warm hands, unaware these touches are final.
The children know, and this is their fun day off. What they don’t realise is a morning of learning awaits, a mixed-topic master class. First is sex education as the randy billies try to mount anything stationary and lick their ejaculate. Then biology as the wee ones get to watch autopsies, and finally philosophy as they start to ponder the meaning of life.
At 7 am when the congregations have finished formal prayers, the first animal is led unhurriedly and willingly to a short bridge alongside the Fattahillah mosque. Shafts of sunlight rising above smoking Mount Bromo to the east, bounce off the holy place’s green and yellow dome.
Had there been flowers, Ferdinand could have paused to sniff. There are no worrying sights to disturb what he imagines most likely – a move to pastures fresh.
So he cooperates.
Had he resisted little could have been done to contain his adrenalin-boosted power. One shake of his muscled neck and he’d have tossed off the handlers, kicked others away and pranced bucking and snorting through the crowded kampong, scattering residents like the running of the bulls in Spain.
Instead he trusted.
He wouldn’t have noticed the butcher’s tools sheaved in a leather satchel dangling on a guard-rail. The coiled cords and stacked wicker baskets are commonplace in the byre by the family home where he’d been petted for the past 18 months. The crowd starts to sing prayers. It’s the morning of the long knives.
That should have flashed an alert to the bovine brain. Something unusual is afoot. They’re not using the sound screechers atop the minaret. The chant is cheerful and unusual for all are participating, girls and boys, men and women, most dressed casually. For this mosque is Nahdlatul Ulama, a branch of Indonesian Islam that’s more tolerant and relaxed.
To a bull’s ears, one religious verse is probably much like any other. Even when the blue ropes are threaded around his neck and legs in a diamond pattern there’s nothing to worry about. That is until the six men jerk and pull.
Suddenly half a tonne of living animal crashes to the concrete. His body writhes like a landed fish. The ropes are dragged from under and rapidly tied around the thrashing hooves, yanking them together.
The fellow tries to bellow, a bull’s roar to protest the pain and betrayal. But the bonds are too tight and three men sitting on his belly stifle his breathing. Instead he draws his testicles up into his abdomen and shits.
The onlookers laugh. No-one does squeamish. Or social distancing. Few wear masks.
All hands are needed to roll the living carcase onto a blue plastic cover like a bedridden hospital inmate having a sheet change. There’s much rocking and shoving to make him comfortable.
The choreographer of the show opens his bag and selects the long-bladed favourite, well-honed that morning. His sidekicks pull back the head so the skin is taut. Forty centimetres of silver steel slices through the thick brown throat as though it’s a soft cheese.
The killer’s fingers feel within the gaping wound for the white windpipe, then severs it apart. Now the bull is voiceless. One man ruffles the victim’s brow as if to say: ‘Don’t worry, it’ll all be over soon.’
Others hold palm fronds at the throat so the spurting blood doesn’t soak bystanders. A hose is thrust in the floppy red gap like a surgeon intubating a patient, to wash the pumping heart and hasten bleeding.
A square steel manhole is opened in the road so the gore can drain into the creek below. The kids push through the fence of legs for a closer look. No one gets annoyed.
Bull’s mates resting 50 metres away now understand they’ve been given the extreme sentence and there’s no appeal. They can only hear the prayers and they can’t see through the dense crowd. But they smell death. To carnivores like dingoes, it means food. To herbivores it signals flight.
Yet as each creature is led to the soft banana tree trunk that serves as pillow and execution block, they ignore their instincts and offer no resistance.
What’s the point? Their symbolic role in the apocryphal Genesis story pre-dates Islam. This is their destiny. It is written. Eid-al Adha (also known as Idul Adha) is a holy holiday, also celebrated in Judaism and parts of Christendom. It honours Abraham’s willingness to obey God and sacrifice his son Isaac.
With heaven-sent timing the deity intervened and offered a ram lamb to replace the lad. The late British-American author and public atheist Christopher Hitchens damned the tale: ‘Religions which say you should admire infanticide as proof of the love of God have no place at all to preach ethics, let alone love.’
This kampong is also no place to question the tradition in a country where an estimated 400,000 bulls and twice that number of billy goats were sacrificed last Friday. They bled to death at around the same time across the archipelago and elsewhere, for Islam has 1.8 billion followers worldwide.
After slaughter a practised chain gang took over, skinning, gutting and packaging the meat for distribution to the villagers, whatever their faith.
Mosque officials said the bulls were local, though several appear to be Angus, a black-skinned breed common in Australia. However, it’s unlikely these placid beasts have come from Down Under unless bought from feedlots months earlier.
If so then they should be dying differently, stunned before slaughter. That was the deal done with Indonesian authorities after the live beef trade was abruptly halted in 2011. The ban which outraged pastoralists, came after activists released gruesome videos of gratuitous brutality in Indonesian abattoirs.
That’s not happening here in Sawojajar. No-one kicks, thumps or carries sticks. There’s no clamour. The only offence animal welfare supporters might raise is that the ritual should start with a captive bolt fired into the brain. To get that coup-de-grace the victims need to have come from the Kimberley.
Who’d dare intervene? To do so would sacrifice whatever goodwill remains between the neighbours, physically close, culturally distant. both demanding the right to do things their way. This is a good place to consider religious rites, though not animal rights.