Lying low in a slum in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, monkey handler Tardi does not dare take his long-tailed macaque out to perform in the streets for fear of being caught in a new crackdown.
He and fellow handlers have been keeping a low profile in recent days after city authorities launched their toughest bid yet to rescue animals that they say have been kept for years in squalid conditions.
Tied to leashes and forced to wear doll masks and beg for money as they totter along on their hind legs, the performing monkeys have long been a common sight in teeming, traffic-clogged Jakarta.
However, in recent years authorities and animal rights groups have been stepping up efforts to crack down on the practice, and Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo has now announced a plan to get the animals off the streets by next year.
“This has become an international issue,” Widodo said. “Please have pity for these monkeys who have been abused by their owners.”
After taking power in October last year, he ordered officials to step up efforts to get the monkeys off the streets, but the campaign that got under way this week is his most ambitious yet.
A central part of it is offering compensation of 1 million rupiah (about US$90) to every handler from whom a monkey is seized, as well as offering to train them in new professions.
To start the campaign, public order officers, who assist the national police in maintaining peace, launched a series of raids across the city. They have so far seized 21 monkeys and sent them to be quarantined, officials said.
The rescued monkeys “were stressed, some tried to attack and some recoiled when we approached them,” veterinarian Valentina Aswindrastuti from the Jakarta quarantine facility said. “They also had swollen gums and rotten teeth.”
The monkeys, known in Indonesian as topeng monyet, which means “masked monkey,” are typically in bad health after being kept for years in cramped, filthy cages. They also suffer from being trained to stand on two legs like humans, with their necks hung from wires and their arms bound.
While Jakarta still has some way to go — animal rights groups believe there are still about 200 performing monkeys in the city — activists have been encouraged by the swift start to the campaign.
The Jakarta Animal Aid Network, which has helped to rescue the monkeys in the past and has campaigned vigorously on the issue, praised the offer of cash compensation as “the best solution yet from the government to stop monkey abuse.”
“The scheme to provide 1 million rupiah will help the monkey handlers start a new business,” said Benvika, head of the group who like many Indonesians goes by one name.
The widely publicized campaign has scared many handlers from heading out with their monkeys and the usual haunts of the masked primates are currently deserted.
Tardi, 41, and some of his fellow monkey handlers who live in a riverbank slum in eastern Jakarta have been lying low in recent days instead of taking their monkeys to perform in nearby neighborhoods and the city center.
However, they have been angered by the crackdown, saying it could financially ruin them and that accusations of widespread abuse are unfair.
“I’ve done this job for more than 10 years,” the father of four said.
“I did not go to school. This is the only skill I have to earn money,” he said.
Handlers say they earn as much as 1.7 million rupiah a month for working a few days a week — 500,000 rupiah 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 the owners 1 million rupiah if they lose the animal.
Fellow handler Kholid Mawar insisted that the monkeys, who are kept in the slum in tiny brick enclosures with white, wooden doors, were properly looked after.
“I always feed the monkey... We treat him as if he were part of our family,” the 25-year-old said, adding that he was now struggling financially at a time when his second child had just been born.
“They say we have made the monkeys suffer, but what about us?” he asked.