Trick or Treat

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At a busy intersection in Jakarta, Indonesia, it's not uncommon to find a monkey wearing a baby doll mask, playing to a crowd of onlookers. Tethered to a long iron chain, the monkey walks upright and usually wears dirty clothes, mimicking human behavior like carrying a shopping bag or riding a bicycle; sometimes it performs cartwheels, handstands, or jumps through a hoop. The act is played up for the amusement of the crowd, but the monkey's real objective is to collect money for its human handler.

The circus-like performance is called topeng monyet and is regarded by some Indonesians as an important folk art tradition dating back to the 1890s. Historically, topeng monyet troupes included both human and monkey performers who traveled from village to village playing music and doing tricks. But in recent years, monkeys have become lone street performers, exploited and abused by their urban handlers.

Now, Indonesian authorities are cracking down on masked monkey performances like these, denoucing them as a form of animal cruelty and an international embarrassment. "Have pity on the monkeys," Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo said recently, "they are being exploited by their owners." 

Widodo plans to unveil an anti-topeng monyet campaign next year, while authorities are working with animal rights groups to treat and relocate confiscated monkeys to a special enclosure at the local zoo. In the future, topeng monyet handlers could face up to seven years in prison for violating the animal abuse law.

In the photo above, Atun, a trained monkey, wears a doll head and clothing during a street performance in Jakarta on June 1, 2011.


Many of Jakarta's performer monkeys are captured from the Sumatran forests, then brought to the city or nearby villages to be broken by trainers and taught to perform. A good portion of these monkeys are trained and sold in East Jakarta's South Cipinang Besar slum, one of many "monkey villages" that supply handlers with performer monkeys.  

Above, monkeys in training are chained by the neck in Jakarta on June 1, 2011.



A trained monkey named Ucil wears a doll's head during a street performance in Jakarta on June 1, 2011. The metal chain around the monkey's neck tethers him to his handler, and also acts a prod: If Ucil sits or stops working, the handler can tug on the chain to spur him back into action. Sometimes, monkeys are carried by their chain, and grasp it with their hands and feet to avoid being strangled.


In this photo, Atun is seen pulling a cart during a street performance in Jakarta on June 1, 2011. Monkeys like Atun usually live with their handlers in Jakarta's slums, where they run the risk of spreading communinicable diseases to humans nearby. Monkeys rescued by the Jakarta Animal Aid Network have tested positive for tuberculosis, hepatitis, and herpes, all of which are easily transmitted between humans and monkeys.


There was a time when these masked monkey performances were something of a popular tourist attraction in Indonesia, similar to elephant rides in Thailand. But that's changing quickly. David van Gennep, who runs a primate sanctuary in the Netherlands, told the Jakarta Post that his organization has received a growing number of complaints from Dutch tourists in recent years. "Foreign tourists don't like it," he said. "Most of them turn away because they don't find it entertaining or amusing at all. On the contrary, they find it disgusting and cruel. It is a bad image for Jakarta."

Above, children circle around to watch a monkey perform in the Muara Baru area of Jakarta on Sept. 11.


Macaque monkeys receive a banana from their trainer in a "monkey village" in Jakarta on June 1, 2011. These monkeys will be trained to perform and panhandle in the street. Outside of Jakarta, entire villages have entered the monkey trade. Traders capture the monkeys in the wild and bring them in sacks to monkey villages where trainers break them in and then teach them to perform. The trained monkeys can then be sold, or leased for less than $3 per day. 


Trainers teach monkeys to walk on two legs by tying their hands behind their back and chaining their necks, like the monkey above in Jakarta on June 1, 2011. With their hands bound, the monkeys are forced to learn to balance by standing upright in order to keep themselves from being strangled. After one or two months of this, the monkeys are conditioned to walk only on their hind legs. Unfortunately, some don't survive the ordeal, and die of either stress or strangulation.


A macaque monkey named Rizal wears a doll's face with a pacifier in its mouth, while begging on the streets of Jakarta on Nov. 13, 2012. The Jakarta Animal Aid Network, a local animal rights group, has staged several rallies calling on the government to ban the practice. Authorities have been relatively receptive. The former governor, Fauzi Bowo, allowed the group to confiscate monkeys it found on the street and place them in rehabilitation facilities, though he didn't ban the practice outright. Now, Governor Widodo promises to eradicate the practice by the end of 2014.


Earlier this year, Jakarta Governor Widodo ordered a team of plainsclothes police officers to patrol the streets and work with animals rights groups to confiscate performance monkeys like Atun. So far, they've apprehended about 24 monkey-handlers, and put the city's 400 other handlers on guard.

Here, Atun the monkey jumps through a ring during a street performance in Jakarta on June 1, 2011.


Activists with the Jakarta Animal Aid Network use the chains to their advantage, when rescuing animals. "They're easy to catch since many are chained," the organization's spokesperson told AFP. "When we're ready, we pretend to be passers-by. We just walk past them and grab them."

Above, another chained macaque monkey in Jakarta on June 1, 2011. 

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