Frank Delano Manus is dog’s best friend. In North Sulawesi, a part of Indonesia where dogs are just as likely to be pets as they are meat, Frank runs a sanctuary for dogs and cats that were destined for the dinner plate, saving them from a fate outsiders call cruel, but locals in the province’s Minahasa heartlands consider a vital part of their culinary culture.
It’s a controversial position to take in Minahasa, one that’s earned Frank more than a few threats, but it’s one he refuses to back down from.
“North Sulawesi was really harsh about these things,” Frank explained of his early days as an animal rights activist. “One of our programs was to educate, and we were doing campaigns in the streets and these people started shouting at us, cursing us, even throwing rocks at us. This happened for two years.”
He added, “But after that, a lot of people actually started to sympathize with our cause and join our movement, especially after they learned that we were also locals. In the end, we gained their respect and tolerance.”
Still, some of Frank’s actions, especially those involving foreign animal rights groups, can touch a nerve in Minahasa.
“One of the largest confrontations I've ever had was when we were visited by NGOs from [overseas],” Frank recalled. “They all came to Minahasa to investigate the crisis regarding animal welfare. We helped them rescue domestic animals like dogs and cats from the Tomohon market. And the people responded by writing in a local media that ‘there is a group of foreigners trying to encourage the locals to destroy our culture’.”
It’s an argument Frank doesn’t buy. He grew up in Tondano, a small city a short drive from Tomohon, the home of the region’s controversial Pasar Ekstrim—a bushmeat market rebranded as an offbeat tourist destination where sad, mangy dogs are confined to cramped cages, beaten to death, and sold for meat.
Dog meat isn’t a common dish in Indonesia, but in certain regions, like Minahasa, in North Sulawesi, the meat is a well-known ingredient in local cuisine. It’s still controversial enough that the central government has tried—and failed—to ban the consumption of dog meat nationwide, but locally the practice is seen as a vital part of Minahasan tradition.
Frank, though, told VICE that the history of eating dogs doesn’t have as long a tail as most people think.
“I grew up having these conflicted feelings about our so-called 'culture' of eating dogs and cats because I grew up with them,” Frank said. “So, in 2013, I did some research and met with historians from Manado University and Sam Ratulangi University. All of them agreed that eating dogs can’t be considered our culture because the habit only dates back to the 1930s. Back then, dogs were used during hunting, but because of war and famine, people started to eat them.”
Frank said there were no written adat laws or passages (customary indigenous rules) that required people to eat dogs or cats during traditional ceremonies or rituals.
“That’s what changed my views on how we should treat domestic animals.”
Frank then decided to join Animal Friends Manado Indonesia (AFMI), a nonprofit animal shelter founded by local activist Anne Parengkuan that saves dogs, cats, and more from the region’s markets. When VICE visited AFMI’s shelter, 40 of the 130 cats and dogs were bought and rescued from the bushmeat market in Tomohon.
It’s admittedly just a small percentage of what’s being sold there, Frank said. But that’s an issue that AFMI has always struggled with. The organization wants to save dogs and cats from being sold as meat, but what seems like the most obvious solution—just buying them from the market—creates more problems than it solves.
“Buying the animals is problematic and this has always created a huge dilemma for us,” Frank explained. “We want to save these dogs and cats but, if we buy them, we’re encouraging the sellers to even sell and trade in even more animals. We basically just give them more money if we do that, so we can’t.”
Still, AFMI has successfully saved hundreds of dogs since it was founded. The shelter’s grounds are home to a diverse pack of friendly and energetic dogs, some of them still puppies, that, in all likelihood, would be dead without the shelter’s work.
All of them are housed in a purposely nondescript building. There’s no sign and, for most visitors, the only indication that you’re at the correct place is the telltale sound of barking dogs rising from behind a tall fence. The low-key approach serves a purpose, Frank explained.
“It's for safety reasons,” he said. “Not for ours, but for the dogs. In North Sulawesi, one of the most common crimes that happens is domestic animal killings or kidnappings. Ninety percent of homes with pets in Minahasa must have experienced their cats or dogs being stolen at least once in their life. In the old days, these kidnappings were called ‘doger,’ wherein the kidnappers would use potassium to kidnap the dogs, but nowadays they just hit the dog or cat in the head until they’re unconscious.”
A few months ago, AFMI made one of its biggest rescues to date—19 dogs all saved from the cages of a local bushmeat market. Most of them were in such bad shape that three died shortly after being rescued. But one of the dogs in the worst condition survived.
When Frank first saw the small brown mixed-breed he was covered in wounds, some of which were badly infected and full of maggots. No one was sure the dog would ever be able to recover. But, with the help of AFMI’s staff and veterinarians, the dog lived.
“The condition of that dog was one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” Frank said. “But he survived. After he recovered from his wounds, we decided to name him Hope.”
With reports from Rizky Maulana.
This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.