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 is clutching.
The movement jolts the skinny, apparently playful, animal to stretch out its hands to passersby and beg for alms.
It is 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.
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 US$0.50 fine to nine months in jail, with imprisonment rare.
However, now the animals in the Indonesian capital may finally have found their saviors: 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.
“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 reporters.
“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, about 24 monkey-handlers and monkeys have been rounded up — a modest number, but the fear of arrest has kept half of Jakarta’s “regulars” off the streets, Benvika said.
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 center in western Java to relearn their natural behavior, although months of harsh training means recovery takes time.
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.
Public-order officer Sofyan Nasrulloh 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 sympathize with them, I pity the monkeys more,” he said.