Chained monkeys forced to perform on Jakarta's streets
Squatting near a busy traffic junction in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, monkey-handler Takiadi tugs at the long-tailed macaque at the end of the leash he's clutching. The movement jolts the skinny, apparently playful, animal to stretch out its hands to passers-by and beg for alms.
It's a common scene in the city, but taking up such a visible spot is becoming increasingly risky for shabbily dressed Takiadi, 27, who was born and bred in Jakarta and has been working as a monkey handler for five years.
Days earlier he had narrowly escaped arrest after officers swooped as part of a new push to stop widespread cruelty to the animals.
"Public-order officers appeared out of the blue as I was putting a doll's mask over the monkey's face. I managed to run away but my monkey was confiscated. I have to be more careful now," Takiadi told AFP, gripping tightly on his new monkey's chain.
Referred to as topeng monyet, meaning "masked monkeys" because of the masks their handlers often force them to wear, these captive macaques are caged in cramped, filthy conditions and forced to perform circus stunts for money.
Although penalties exist for the monkey-handlers, punishment for abuse that leads to the death or injury of the primates ranges from a paltry 50-cent fine to nine months in jail, with imprisonment rare.
But now the animals in the Indonesian capital may finally have found their saviours: Jakarta's own monkey raiders. Public-order officers, who assist the national police in maintaining peace on the streets, have begun to work with animal activists in small groups to rescue the macaques.
Dressed in plain clothes, groups of around five typically monitor the monkey-handlers for half an hour from a distance before pouncing. "We coordinate via text message. When we're ready, we pretend to be passers-by. We just walk past them and grab them," Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN) spokesman Benvika told AFP.
"Our main priority is to save the monkeys. They're easy to catch since many are chained but some of their handlers manage to escape. The desperate ones even dash across busy highways," said Benvika, who has carried out several raids.
After intensive lobbying since 2009, JAAN achieved a breakthrough in 2011 when Jakarta's governor gave it the nod to help conduct unannounced weekly raids "to ensure order at traffic junctions".
Since the collaboration between activists and the authorities began, around 24 monkey-handlers and monkeys have been rounded up. It's a modest number, but the fear of arrest has kept half of Jakarta's 400 "regulars" off the streets, Benvika says.
Monkey-handlers are reprimanded and released with written warnings, and repeat offenders are taught vocational skills such as cooking, sewing and hairdressing to give them a way out.
Their animals are sent to JAAN's rehabilitation centre in western Java to relearn their natural behaviour, although months of harsh training, including being forced to stand like humans with their necks hung from wires and their arms bound, means recovery takes time.
Several of the rescued monkeys in Jakarta were suffering from tuberculosis, malnutrition and stress.
JAAN is currently pushing for a ban on street monkeys, but handlers complain the ongoing raids are leaving them out of pocket. Monkey-handler Ilin Satrio, 19, said he had been "wasting a lot of time" playing cat-and-mouse with the authorities, which had eaten into his earnings.
Satrio denied he mistreated his monkey, saying he fed it milk and bananas. "I treat him like a friend. When he's tired, I carry him so he doesn't have to walk. I pity him, but what other job can I do?"
Handlers say they earn as much as 1.7 million rupiah (RM545) a month for working a few days a week, RM155 more than the monthly basic salary of factory workers, who clock long hours daily. They rent a monkey for 15,000 to 30,000 rupiah a day, but have to pay monkey owners one million rupiah if they lose the animal.
In an attempt to continue their business, some have now moved into the suburbs and others have gone as far as Indonesian Borneo, JAAN's Benvika said. Public-order officer Sofyan Nasrulloh, who joins the raids, said monkey-handlers plead with them to give back the animals when they are caught.
"They say it's their only livelihood and promise not to do it again. While I do sympathise with them, I pity the monkeys more!" he said. "The monkeys are all so skinny and look so tired. If they could talk, I'm sure they would protest."
Published: 15th February 2013