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.
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images