The large blue tent sat in a dirt lot in Sidoarjo, a district on the outskirts of Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya. An image of a child playing basketball with a dolphin was printed on the outside. A bear rode a tricycle in another image nearby. The air smelled of sewage and was full of flies that buzzed around a pile of trash around back.
This is a traveling dolphin circus—a cruel attraction that persists in Indonesia despite promises to ban the events by the central government and ongoing criticism by animal rights groups. Inside, dolphins illegally captured by fishermen and sold to the circus are forced to perform tricks for a paying audience. It's illegal in Indonesia to trap a dolphin, but circus owners exploit a loophole that allows for the sale of sick dolphins, or of those accidentally trapped in fishermen's nets.
"They just find a random fisherman and say, 'OK, if you catch dolphin then I will buy it for one or two million [rupiah],'" said Ajier Rifqi, of the Jakarta Animal Aid Network (JAAN). " I already talked with a fisherman who sold a dolphin before."
The dolphins are forced to live in a small chlorinated pool. The chlorine often renders the animals blind, according to experts. The pool's cement sides wreck havoc with the dolphin's sonar as their calls bounce back off the walls in a confusing, and often deafening, echo. It's like "forcing a person to live in a hall of mirrors for the rest of their life," according to JAAN), which has spent the last five years fighting to get the dolphin circuses shut down.
"We will fight until the dolphin [returns] back to the ocean," Ajier said.
So how are these circuses defying the bans? The background, according to Ajier, is complicated. In 2013, what was then called the Ministry of Forestry said the circuses were illegal. Through a weird trust of bureaucratic fate, dolphins are legally "owned" by the forest ministry, while other sea life—sharks, whales, fish—are owned by the Ministry of Maritime Affairs. JAAN has met with the central government on numerous occasions, but despite assurances that they will crack down on the traveling dolphin shows, at least three remain in operation.
"[They say] we will try to stop it, we will try to stop it, but they don't," Ajier said. He believes they remain open because the circus owners rent land from the military or other government institutions, providing a needed revenue source no one is eager to shut down. And the circus owners refused to shutter the operations themselves.
"They always think about the business and about the money," Ajier said of the circus owners. "I think if the dolphin dies they will find another dolphin and train it again."
Mortality rates are high at dolphin circuses. In the wild, a dolphin can live as long as forty years. In the circus, most die in less than five, Ajier explained. The high mortality rate has to do with the terrible conditions of the traveling circuses. The dolphins are often transported on trucks without water, Ajier said.
"It took maybe one day to transport them from [city-to-city]," he said.
Once they make it to the site of another dolphin circus, the animals are routinely starved to keep them eager to perform, Ajier said.
"They always make the dolphin hungry for the [performances] so the dolphin will want to follow the instructions," he said. "And the fish [they're fed] is not fresh. It's already three or four days [old]."
JAAN holds protests twice a month to try to get the circuses shut down. For now, the only way they can make an impact is to go after the circus' bottom line. They hold teaching seminars are local schools, and rallies outside the circus itself. But, despite the protests, many Indonesians just don't realize how cruel these performances are, Ajier said.
"The people in Indonesia never had a good education about the welfare of animals," he told VICE Indonesia. "They always think about the entertainment."
Wersut Seguni Indonesia (WSI), the company that runs the circus in Sidoarjo, declined to comment on this story by deadline.