Jakarta Street Monkeys Spreading Disease

By Ismira Lutfia 29 August 2012

For Durjana, panhandling by forcing a long-tailed monkey to perform on the sidewalks of Jakarta and letting it interact with passersby for small change is nothing more than a way to make a living.

This lifestyle has proven to be a risk to both Durjana and the people who walk past him and his monkey. And the welfare of the animal is also in severe danger.

Durjana admits he is worried about the risks, but tries his best to be responsible. He gives the monkey some over-the-counter medicine at the first signs of the flu, hoping it will cure the animal.

“If the monkey starts to sneeze and look unfit, I try to cure it with any kind of medicine that we humans consume to cure the flu, but I give it half the normal dosage,” he said, unaware that a simple sneeze can release an infectious disease into the air.

Tuberculosis and variety of other diseases can be transferred from a monkey to a human, and that includes humans that don’t come in physical contact with the monkey.

Aside from tuberculosis or herpes, another zoonosis, a human can contract rabies if bitten by a diseased monkey.

But there is no easy way for Durjana, and the hundreds of monkey-handlers on the streets to know if their monkeys are carrying a fatal disease.

“Some diseases are not visible on the surface and can be seen only by health tests, and that’s why the Jakarta Animal Aid Network [JAAN] was conducting health checks for the monkeys,” said David van Gennep, executive director of AAP, a Netherlands-based rescue center and sanctuary for primates and other exotic mammals, during a recent visit to Jakarta.

JAAN recently conducted health screenings on the 21 street monkeys they confiscated in July from panhandlers in South Jakarta. Four tested positive for tuberculosis, leptospirosis and variety of other diseases, including worms, hepatitis B and C, herpes and tetanus. They had to be put down.

“What is happening at the moment with tuberculosis is that it is a human problem, but it infects the animal and goes back to humans,” Van Gennep said.

Van Gennep, a trained virologist, said there is an even worse fear that the monkeys may have been infected by other diseases that people doesn’t know of yet, because the diseases are specific for these animals, such as monkey herpes. They can be fatal to humans if the virus is transmitted.

“When such viruses are transmitted from animal to human, or vice versa, they cross the barriers, and suddenly all hell breaks loose,” Van Gennep said. “It’s like what happened with the avian flu.

“That’s my biggest fear now with topeng monyet [masked monkey performances], because the contact between the monkey and people is too close.”

Van Gennep was in Jakarta to support JAAN in its call to end to street performances using monkeys.

Van Gennep said he was horrified to see such close contact between street monkeys and humans, especially when he saw a panhandler in at the National Monument (Monas) park force his monkey to kiss a child, saying that such contact between the monkey and the human was unnatural.

“As soon as you start making this contact, you can expect problems to start,” he said. “Tuberculosis is bad and other diseases are even worse. If one of those diseases starts spreading, it could really infect a large population.”

He added that a problem like this would be bad not just for humans but also for the animals.

He said removing the infected animal population would only make problems worse because it would generate more movement of animals to fill the empty space. That would make the zoonosis even more uncontrollable, especially if the animals live in an open space and close to humans.

What makes it worse is the extremely bad conditions in which the animals are being held and the way they are treated. Their immune system is weakened by poor feeding practices and harsh training, in which monkeys are allowed to go hungry and thirsty.

Van Gennep said the conditions were ideal for an opportunistic disease, which can create a greater hazard. Some viruses remain dormant as long as the animal is healthy, but once its health is compromised, the virus starts to act.

Since humans and monkeys are related as primates, zoonosis can easily be transmitted between them, said veterinarian Wiwiek Bagja, chairwoman of the Indonesian Veterinary Medical Association.

The risk is now even higher, Wiwiek said, because of the more-than-300 diseases that have recently emerged, with 60 percent of them being zoonosis.

“About 70 percent of those zoonosis are generated from wild animals and Indonesia is a country that is blessed with a rich wildlife,” she said. “We have to be on alert to curb the spread of zoonosi.”

However, she said, Indonesia doesn’t have any regulations that tells humans how to treat animals, nor are there laws to prevent animal cruelty, with the exception of the 2009 Law on Husbandry and Animal Welfare.

Wiwiek said further details on administrative sanctions for those who deny animals their welfare should be laid out in a proposed government regulation on veterinary public health and animal welfare.

The bill has already submitted to the State Secretariat but has yet to be signed by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But even once enacted, Wiwiek said, it will still be inadequate to deter animal abusers because a government regulation does not create the power to prosecute.

“That is why we didn’t employ a ‘cruelty to animals’ approach when we proposed this bill and instead used an animal welfare approach,” Wiwiek said.

“This way we can impose administrative sanctions to any individuals or institutions who deny animals of the principles of animal welfare.”

These principles are guidelines relating to freedom from thirst and hunger, freedom from pain and disease, freedom to live in a suitable environment, freedom to express normal behavior and freedom from fear and distress.

The absence of a regulation that deters humans from being cruel to animals is what hinders animal welfare activists in Yogyakarta from curbing the emergence of street monkey performers, despite the rising threat of zoonosis.

“It is difficult to curb them because we don’t even have a local bylaw yet to control them, such as the Jakarta bylaw that prohibits begging and giving money to beggars,” Dessy Zahara Angelina, a spokeswoman for the Animal Friends Jogja.

In the absence of such a bylaw, Dessy said, all they could do was calls for handlers not to use monkeys for pan-handling and to educate the public that giving money to these pan-handlers will encourage them to employ more monkeys.

“We are worried that if we are left out in this effort, the program would not consider animal welfare and eventually could result in the monkeys being culled, like they did with dogs to curb rabies or poultry to curb avian flu,” Dessy said. “We surely don’t want that to happen. We want zoonosis to be controlled without sacrificing the monkeys.”