Indonesian zoos are known internationally as being pretty sad places. In Surabaya, so many animals have died, or been found starving, that the press dubbed it the "zoo of death." The Bandung Zoo was recently in the media when a local animal welfare group released a heartbreaking video of some starving sun bears begging for food.
And the problem is that these highly publicized cases only scratch the surface. There's the shitty dolphin pools in Bali where the chlorine has left these insanely intelligent creatures blind. And right near my house, out in Bekasi, West Java, there's a crocodile park were more than 400 crocodiles are packed into too-tiny pens, stuck living in cement pools, and fetid-looking water.
Now look, I'm not a crocodile expert. I honestly have no idea what these kinds of conditions do to a crocodile. But I can make a pretty decent assumption that it's nothing good. I also don't know if these crocs are well-fed. But they didn't look like it to me. I called up Femke den Haas, the founder of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN), and asked if she heard of the park.
"I've heard of the crocodile park and I've been there before" den Haas said. "It's been there for a long time. When I was there in 2006, they were selling the crocodile meat, eggs, and skin so they can have double the money. It's really sad."
So, I decided to do something incredibly stupid. I went to the crocodile park with a bag full of fresh meat and plans to secretly feed the crocs. I had some beef and cuts of fresh chicken. All I had to do was feed the crocodiles and not get caught. Easy enough, right?
I walked into Taman Buaya Indonesia Jaya with my friend Dwima last week shortly after Friday prayers. The place was empty. There weren't any visitors and no one seemed to be in charge of the park. We looked around for signs that said "no feeding," but we couldn't find any. There was one sign that read "Don't throw rocks or cans. It hurts."
So, I figured, no harm in giving these crocodiles a little snack. The first spot we found had about 300 crocodiles in it. Way too many to feed safely. The area was surrounded by a barrier that was right in the open, so I would surely get caught. And there was no way I was going to climb over with that many crocodiles sitting right there.
A short distance away, we found the spot where the handlers put on the weekly crocodile show. It's a place where young men put their heads in a croc's mouth and carry the creatures around like puppies—something I doubt they like very much.
There were six crocodiles waiting in there. I reached into the bag and threw a chunk of beef toward the closest croc. The reptile looked at the meat and then… nothing. I guessed that they weren't all that hungry.
So I wandered off and found another pen. This one had an unlocked gate. I opened the gate and walked inside (stupid, I know). I threw a chicken leg into the pool. Again, nothing. So I tried to fish it back out of the pool with a stick. That's when one of the park's rangers noticed me.
Shit, I thought. I'm surely caught. Instead, he offered me a live chicken. Apparently, crocodiles don't like eating chunks of meat. They are prehistoric killing machines, apex predators who can weigh more than 1,000 kilograms. I guess raw chicken legs aren't that appetizing.
I watched as the live chicken flew through the air into the pen. The crocs immediately came to life. With one powerful snap of the croc's jaw, the bird was dead. It was an amazing show of the raw power and beauty of these creatures. They don't deserve to live like that—stuck in cramped, trash-strewn conditions for days on end. But it's also pretty terrible to feed them live chickens. I mean I guess that sort of is what they eat, but it feels weird to play a role in the bird's death.
The ranger offered to sell me a crocodile. It would only cost me Rp 1 million ($75 USD), plus another Rp 2 million ($150 USD) for the permit. He can handle it all, the ranger said. It was pretty fucked up. At least no one tried to sell me crocodile meat. Because we all know where that meat comes from.
So how does this keep happening? Why aren't sad zoos like these shut down by the government?
"According to Indonesian biodiversity law number 5/1990 anyone keeping, catching, hurting, or killing a protected animal will be jailed or get fined," said den Haas. "This law is very outdated by the way and needs to be adapted to this time. But what we see is that wild caught animals end up in zoos. And [the owners] get a permit from forestry department to keep [the animals] there without any settled welfare standards per species. These standards don't exist here that's why even drinking water or other basic needs are seen as a luxury."
She said that JAAN had handed the ministry a draft animal welfare law, but there wasn't any efforts to bring it before the country's zoo industry. The entire industry is run by an association of zoo owners, which makes it very difficult to reform.
"The association is run by zoo owners who put profit first!" den Haas said. "So therefore welfare is of no concern. Indonesia needs a neutral team to conduct checks on animal welfare standards. But they push out NGOs [and] place businesses first, crazy businesses like croc farm that are run by individuals who want to make profit."