Since 2001, Animal People has co-sponsored the Asia for Animals conference. This year, the AfA is to be held in Kuching, Malaysia from October 6-10 (learn more). During the two weeks beforehand, Animal People executive director Wolf Gordon Clifton is traveling in Indonesia to visit different animal welfare-related projects. This series of articles, “Archipelago Animal Adventures,” is intended as a travelogue to document what he’s seen, for the benefit of activists in Indonesia and across the world striving to improve animal welfare in the archipelago.
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Day Three: Saturday, September 26th
In addition to the Cikananga Rescue Center, the Jakarta Animal Aid Network also operates a smaller wildlife rehabilitation center devoted specifically to birds of prey. Located on the small isle of Kotok, an hour and a half boat ride from Jakarta amidst the Thousand Islands, it offers marine raptors such as sea eagles and Brahminy kites an isolated, natural location to readapt to their native habitat.
Today’s expedition consisted of Dr. Merry, myself, our driver Fathir and his young daughter Linda. We set out early to catch an 8:00 boat, which we shared with perhaps 30 other people on their way to various islands, though we were the only ones headed for Kotok.
On the way, Dr. Merry and I spoke more about positive developments in the current Indonesian government. It was encouraging to know that someone’s government was getting better, in contrast to the horror show U.S. politics has become. The water over which we traveled was itself a sign of progress. Six years earlier, Jakarta’s canals and harbors had been packed with garbage, which practically formed a solid layer over the water’s surface and contributed in no small part to the city’s nearly unbreatheable air. Now, the water was clean and blue, with scarcely any visible pollution even around the docks.
Not every part of Indonesia has gotten better, however. Dr. Merry asked whether I had been to Indonesia before, and I told her about my previous two trips, to Bali in 2006 and Bali and Jakarta in 2008, respectively. The first had been to visit Yayasan Yudisthira Swarga, the Bali Street Dog Foundation, for whom I had agreed to produce a promotional video. The video project eventually morphed into a short animated film, Yudisthira’s Dog, retelling in the style of an Indonesian shadow play the story of the ancient Hindu king Yudisthira, who refused to enter Heaven when told that a street dog who had been loyal to him wasn’t allowed to come too. The dog then revealed himself to be Yama, the god of justice, and for his loyalty to a dog Yudisthira was rewarded with the highest place in Heaven.
When I told Dr. Merry the story of Yudisthira, she became emotional, as she remembered her own time in Bali working as a vet for the Bali Animal Welfare Association (the successor to Yudisthira Swarga). The times I had been in Bali, and when Dr. Merry was working there, the island was perhaps the best place in Indonesia for dogs. Partly due to the example of Yudisthira, a religious icon for Balinese Hindus, the Balinese loved dogs. Dogs roamed freely, neither as pets nor strays, but as community dogs jointly cared for by the human members of their neighborhood. Several distinct breeds of dog had evolved on Bali, found nowhere else on Earth, and dogs even played a role in Balinese religion; according to a Hindu priest I had interviewed while there, the Balinese share a word for “dog” and “karma,” because a person’s true moral character is revealed by the way they treat their dog.
Several years ago, rabies appeared in Bali for the first time, brought in from elsewhere in Indonesia by dog meat traffickers, and everything changed. The governor of Bali, himself a Balinese Hindu, began ordering the killing of dogs. He and his officials refused to listen to BAWA and other animal organizations’ protests, or even to health organizations that recommended vaccination, rather than culling, as a more effective means of controlling rabies. I learned from Dr. Merry that when BAWA continued to protest, the Balinese government shut down their shelter. Now, the only dogs safe on Bali are those kept locked indoors. Most of the community dogs have been killed, and pets that wander outdoors risk dying in agony of strychnine poisoning. So far neither local nor international protest has succeeded in changing the government’s policy of indiscriminate massacre.
King Yudisthira went to Heaven because of his loyalty to a dog. It is little comfort to imagine what karmic fate awaits those who have made Bali a hell on Earth for dogs. I pray instead for a swift end to the massacre, that Yudisthira’s spirit of compassion and justice for all creatures might again be known in Bali, and the island’s dogs allowed to live in peace.
When we arrived on Kotok, we were greeted by several JAAN employees and a party of friendly dogs, rescued from Jakarta and brought over by Femke den Haas (JAAN’s cofounder) to live on the island.
The island used to host two luxury resorts. One went out of business a decade ago, and its abandoned buildings are now used as JAAN facilities. The other is still barely clinging to life, housing perhaps one visitor every month, with the lush jungle already overtaking many of its buildings.
Kotok houses Brahminy kites and several varieties of sea eagle. Most have been rescued from the Indonesian wildlife trade. Raptors are illegal to capture, expensive to buy, difficult to care for, and potentially dangerous. As such, they are prized commodities for those looking to display their wealth and power, especially popular among rich Middle Easterners.
Some of the raptors on Kotok are unable to fly, having had their flight feathers clipped, wings injured, or simply because they never had the chance to learn and so grew up with underdeveloped flight muscles. These individuals will receive lifelong care on Kotok Island.
Others are still able to fly, or can at least learn how to. These birds go through a lengthy process of rehabilitation.
The final step before releasing raptors back in the wild is to transfer them to a large offshore aviary, where they can learn or relearn to hunt their natural prey, fish. JAAN workers spend hours at a time watching the birds, closely evaluating whether or not they’re ready to return to the wild. So as to interfere as little as possible in the animals’ behavior, they observe from behind a blind on the island’s shore.
Brahminy kites are naturally social birds, so multiple individuals can be housed in a single aviary. Sea eagles, on the other hand, are solitary and aggressive toward others, requiring individual housing. As such, only one can inhabit the offshore cage at a time. Further complicating release efforts is the fact that a single eagle’s territory usually encompasses one or two small islands. Even when eagles are otherwise ready for release, the limited number of islands not already claimed, and otherwise suitable for the raptors to live on, can make the final step in the rehabilitation process very lengthy and difficult.
Not far from the offshore aviary’s observation point was another abandoned resort building, which turned out to house a full-size mounted sperm whale skeleton! The whale had been found stranded on a beach and pushed back out to sea, only to strand himself yet again and pass away before he could be rescued a second time. Government officials and university scholars decided to donate the body to JAAN, cleaning and mounting the skeleton on Kotok as an educational exhibit for visitors.
Having gotten my Masters degree in Museum Studies, I was pleasantly surprised to encounter such an imposing natural history display on this remote island, and intrigued by the improvised techniques used to mount it there.
After a delicious vegetarian lunch prepared by our hosts, Dr. Merry and I and Sabarno, one of JAAN’s employees on the island, crossed through the jungle to the barely-surviving resort on the other side. One dog and one cat, Pepi and Mami respectively, accompanied us along the way, forming an adorable multi-species train. Mami the cat would often stop for short breaks, then sprint to catch up with us, while Pepi wandered off into the brush following the scent of rodents, deer, wild chickens, and monitor lizards.
At the resort, we met a fourth-year university student named Yusuf, who specialized in studying monitor lizards. The ones here were apparently huge, only a little smaller than Komodo dragons (the largest species of monitor), and spent most of the day in the water rather than on land. After some time tracking, Yusuf eventually managed to find three different individuals. The largest one I saw in her entirety only for a moment, raising my head just as Pepi the dog chased her into the water. Only her head was visible after that, once she partly surfaced on the far side of the lagoon.
The truth is, contrary to this entry’s title I didn’t actually want to escape Raptor Island. Kotok was beautiful, and I loved the animals present: not just the birds of prey, who were JAAN’s primary focus here, but the dogs and cats and lizards as well. I hope to be able to return again in the future. As for right now, JAAN is actually hoping to find a wealthy benefactor willing to buy the failing resort property, or the entire island, so as to prevent it being acquired by developers hostile to the animals and jungle.
If you’re reading this and are a millionaire who loves animals, contact JAAN and let them know you’re interested!
Later that evening I met up with my friend Anita Mayangpuspa for dinner. We had only met once before, at the 2008 AfA conference in Bali, but had often liked or shared eachothers’ Facebook posts about animals, and I consulted her for advice while planning my current trip to Indonesia. We went to a vegetarian restaurant called Dharma Kitchen in Jakarta’s Grand Indonesia Mall, and shared in a delicious all-vegan Indonesian feast.
Anita used to volunteer for JAAN. While her work schedule currently precludes hands-on activism, she remains passionate about animal rights and is very active in promoting the cause via social media. “Information is power,” she told me, and as the director of an organization dedicated to the exchange of information, I completely agreed. Internet activists often get a bad reputation as “slacktivists” or “keyboard warriors,” compared to those who physically rescue animals or protest in the streets. But the reality is that without people to educate and raise popular awareness of animal issues, the cause could never succeed. As noble as hands-on animal work is, it may amount to little more than a drop in the bucket, unless one can influence other people’s views and so create ripples in society.
Dog meat was popular where Anita grew up in central Java. It wasn’t just butchers or restaurant owners who killed dogs for food. Many people would personally raise dogs or capture them off the street to kill themselves, including members of Anita’s own family and even priests and nuns at the Catholic school where she was educated. Once she rescued a dog whose ear had been cut off alive to cook.
The conversation took a philosophical turn when I asked Anita how, growing up in a community so desensitized to animal suffering, she had turned out differently. She replied that she didn’t really know, but had always felt intensely empathetic toward animals despite her family’s discouragement. From early childhood she saw animals as her friends, and felt an almost spiritual “calling” to help them.
I thought of how my mother, Kim Bartlett, describes the small number of intensely spiritual, compassionate people who exist in every culture irrespective of religion, and often in conflict with orthodoxy: as “wildflowers,” beautiful and untamable, arising and growing spontaneously even in hostile environments.
Anita liked this term. Why wildflowers exist at all we still couldn’t say, but we agreed that the animal cause could not succeed without them. We need more wildflowers to take root, and spread far and wide the seeds of compassion for all living creatures.