Throughout the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, poverty is rife. With trash and sewage all around, the desperate and impoverished citizens approach Western visitors there, displaying their handicaps and twisted limbs in the desperate hope to gain a few coins. Unsettling as this may be, though, there’s something else that will also readily shock foreigners.
Fully clothed and arms outstretched, what looks like a small child approaches you for money. But as it gets closer, you realize with horror that what you are seeing isn’t even human.
In fact, peeking out from behind a doll’s mask is actually a monkey. Disturbingly human in appearance, this unsettling and eerie spectacle wouldn’t look out of place in a macabre horror movie. But the nightmare here is indeed theirs: for these are Jakarta’s “topeng monyet,” or “masked monkeys,” captured and forced to perform for money.
These monkeys are shackled in chains and enslaved to a life of performance, rigorously trained to walk on their hind legs, ride bikes, juggle, dance and replicate other human traits. Indeed, perhaps what’s most disturbing about these spooky creatures is that they appear like ghostly mini versions of ourselves. Maybe, then, they evoke our basic human fear of capture and disempowerment.
In recent years, animal rights groups have been campaigning strongly to stop the cruel practice. They state that the animals are exposed to high levels of barbaric cruelty. The system is fed by poachers who capture wild monkeys from the forests and sell them to trainers for just a few dollars each.
And these street monkeys are part of a wider problem within Indonesia and throughout the rest of Asia. Each year, around 3,000 monkeys are snatched from Indonesian forests. They are often separated from their mothers, and many end up traded around the globe for animal research and experimentation.
Other monkeys themselves work the streets. They play their part in a practice that has been going on in the city of Jakarta for decades. Indeed, although it started as a way to simply entertain impoverished children, training monkeys is now considered a bona fide career.
The practice developed once the “monkey masters,” as they are called, realized that they could make a pretty penny from tourists. In fact, at one point as many as 350 monkeys were performing on the streets of Jakarta. Of course, locals are by now unfazed by the creepy child-like apparitions.
If anything, locals look upon the monkey masters with approval. That’s because any business that earns money is considered a worthy one in a city otherwise besieged with poverty and even outright thievery. It is well understood, moreover, that monkey masters are doing their job out of necessity.
Poachers, meanwhile, sell wild monkeys to trainers for anywhere between $2 to $7. A fully-trained macaque, then, can be resold for as much as $135 or even rented for only $3 a day. Whatever profits the trainers make, however, are often quickly spent on food and the basic human needs of their own families.
But the methods the trainers use to “teach” the monkeys how to behave has, not surprisingly, angered animal charities in the region. Reportedly, the monkeys have their teeth pulled to keep them from biting anyone. They also undergo torture sessions that include having their arms chained and raised. This is done until the monkeys are forced to walk on just their feet.
Sometimes, what goes on is even more horrifying. “Frequently their teeth are cut out, they are often starved and made to hang upside down for prolonged periods,” Femke den Haas, founder of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network, told the BBC in 2013.
Astonishingly, the monkeys endure this horrific practice for four to six hours a day for up to six months. Not surprisingly, many die. But the survivors then face a lifetime of performing the tricks of the trade with the chains around their necks. Moreover, their deaths sometimes come prematurely, as handlers will usually sell aggressive monkeys as food.
With such a job, it’s not hard to imagine just how difficult the off-work hours are for these little monkeys. Indeed, as Den Haas told the BBC, “the monkeys live in pitiful conditions, are riddled with parasites and forced to live in small cages.” Unfortunately, with the exception of living in actual cages, many of the human inhabitants of Jakarta are not doing much better.
But the trainers depend on their monkeys being in good health to perform. “They are the source of our life, how could we be cruel to them? No way,” one trainer named Sarinah told the Associated Press in 2013. The mom-of-three was in charge of no fewer than 13 monkeys at the time.
Unfortunately for Sarinah and others who make a living from this act, the protests from animal rights groups have grown stronger. The government, moreover, has taken notice: in 2012 Jakarta Animal Aid Network was given its permission to confiscate 40 street monkeys.
Consequently, it turned out that the poor creatures were in fact infected with parasites and diseases, such as hepatitis and tuberculosis. It was partly the fear of such diseases spreading to humans that facilitated further government crackdown on the situation. In October 2013, then, governor Joko “Jokowi” Widodo decided to outlaw the practice. Talking to local press, he explained that “the exploitation of monkeys for performances has become an international issue, and the city administration will act immediately to save them.”
And Widodo’s fears about human infection appear to be founded. In fact, Jakarta Animal Aid Network has claimed to have discovered some people in one housing complex in the east of the city who had contracted tuberculosis from their monkeys. Knowing this, the ban couldn’t come soon enough for the organization.
The city government promised to buy back all of Jakarta’s street monkeys for around $90 each, before sheltering them at the city’s Ragunan Zoo. To further compensate those losing money on the trade, Widodo said that all owners would receive training to develop skills to land new jobs. The street sweep duly got underway, and many animals were rescued and quarantined. Posters were also placed around the city explaining just how hazardous monkeys can be to community health.
Overall, then, the ban has been considered a success. “All the confiscated monkeys have been rehabilitated and three out of five groups have been successfully released back into the wild,” Jakarta Animal Aid Network said in an August 2016 update on its website. The network is now preparing to release the last two groups of monkeys, who have been undergoing more than three years of rehabilitation.
As of 2016, moreover, the network has secured an additional ban on dancing monkeys in Indonesia’s West Java province. And, following its victories, it is continuing to campaign for a national ban across the whole of Indonesia. With such hard work, then, it seems that the country’s monkeys may have a brighter future in their natural habitats. Hopefully, then, their days of dancing on the streets for money are numbered.