Relationships, Attitudes and Emotions of Human towards Nonhuman Primates in Indonesia by Julia Keil

For those who are interested in Primatology, Indonesia seems to be a paradise. It comprises, as Grow et al. noted (2010:1-5), the natural habitats of many nonhuman primate species including the only Asian great apes, orang-utans, as well as different lesser apes, monkeys, loris and tarsiers. Yet today many of these species are going to become extinct, mainly due to deforestation and pet trade. Before disembarking on my explorative study in Yogyakarta, Java and Central Kalimantan, I had heard about primates, who suffered from inappropriate husbandry conditions, as shown by National Geographic (2015:14), or were forced to perform as masked dancing monkeys, as shown by Zimbio (2015). In the eyes of so-called ‘Westerners’ such images of afflicted primates cause bewilderment, even disgust. ‘This is abnormal!’, ‘How can people do that?’, ‘Why do they have this lack of empathy?’, ‘Is this attitude somehow related to religion and culture ?’ I could hear from friends, colleagues and ‘Western’ informants or asked myself respectively. The images we get from Indonesia give the impression that what is going on there is basically different to what we are used to in Western Countries. Although in Germany, there are many domestic animals suffering a lot in industrial farming. However, this happens hidden from public view. At the same time the acceptance for the presentation of exotic animals in circuses decreases (Martens 2009) and last but not least primates are regarded as deserving more protection then most other animals, because they are associated with high mental capacities (Knight and Barnett 2008).

However, my aim is not to judge moral values of others. Instead, I intend to explore what dimensions of the human-nonhuman primate relationships can be encountered once studied more systematically. Several authors described that people’s direct experiences with animals, their cultural perceptions and religious orientation or the belief in animal mind affect their attitudes towards other animals (Bowd and Bowd 1989; Flynn 2001; Fuentes 2011; Knight and Barnett 2008; Knight et al. 2004; Serpell 2004). Hence, I asked: How do people think and feel about primates? Which personal experiences do they have with apes and monkeys? Is a certain attitude related to the person’s cultural, social, educational, religious or other identity? What are the differences between ‘Indonesian’ and ‘German’ perspectives on primates and how could they be explained?

1. Approaching human-nonhuman primate relationships ethnographically

‘The Researchers’ Affects’ is an interdisciplinary project of scholars from Social and Cultural Anthropology, Literature Studies and Psychology that examines the role of emotions in ethnographic and primatographic field research.

To learn and practice ethnographic fieldwork, our team of eight researchers conducted a four weeks field excursion to Indonesia. The team’s anthropologists supervised our fieldwork and we conducted several workshops with local informants. In addition, three filmmakers accompanied the ethnographers’ work occasionally in order to document the nature of ethnographic fieldwork.

Our task was to collect data on a topic of our own interest. My interest in people’s relationships with other animals dates far back: Since my childhood I had many emotional relationships towards individual domestic animals. I have always enjoyed to interact with animals and to watch them. Because I commiserated with animals I became vegetarian.

As a Biological Anthropologist I compare humans to other animals, especially to our closest relatives, the other primates, in order to investigate how we came to be how we are today. In my on-going dissertation project I explore which relationships, attitudes and emotions primatologists have towards their research objects and how these factors influence the process of research. Therefore I am generally interested in human-nonhuman animal-relationships and particularly in human-nonhuman primate-relationships.

This study does not claim to represent the whole of ‘Indonesian attitudes’ towards nonhuman primates. Although the research is of explorative nature, it is a systematic assessment of my research questions and intends to trigger further collaboration with interested colleagues. To generate my data, I conducted participant observation at the zoo, the animal market and on the streets of Yogyakarta. My interlocutors and informants comprise of vendors at the animal market, animal rights activists, students, teachers, keepers at animal refuges and zoos, zoo visitors, people on the street and European volunteers. Usually I introduced myself as a German who is interested in primates and how Indonesians think about them. I wrote field notes, took photographs, talked to people, conducted formally recorded interviews and also gave three lectures about orang-utans at a local grammar school, together with my research partner Kelsie Prabawa-Sear, an Australian anthropologist, who studies environmental education in Indonesia. These lectures served as focused group discussions with the pupils and their teachers. Furthermore, I took field notes during our visits at an orang-utan rehabilitation centre and at the Tanjung Puting National Park in South Borneo (Kalimantan Selatan). On several days I was accompanied by translators that compensated my basic Indonesian language skills.

Since the ‘Researchers’ Affects’ project aims at investigating researchers’ emotions, in the field, one important part of my field experience was to keep an emotion diary. Therefore, my data did not only comprise of field notes with descriptions of observations and notes of informal interviews, but also a documentation of my personal feelings in the field. This helped me to control my research bias and reflect on my research-related emotions in this emotionally challenging ethnographic study. Since on the one hand it was very easy to get in contact with local people and to feel comfortable talking to them, because of their well-known kindness and friendliness, yet on the other hand I often observed captive animals I felt very sorry with (Picture 1). Most challenging for me, however, was when I got the feeling that I could not talk frankly about biological evolution. Since at that point my time in the field was already over, I could not do further investigations regarding that issue and will not relate to it in this paper.

For the qualitative analysis I sorted and coded the data and then clustered and interpreted them according to the spaces of encounters and the interlocutors’ attitudes towards primates. In the following I will refer to nonhuman primates as primates and to nonhuman animals as animals.

The author at the animal market trying to ignore the whining cats and dogs, film still Emanuel Mathias

2. Spaces of Primate Encounters

Where do human and non-human primates in Yogyakarta and Kalimantan meet each other? My interlocutors told me about various spaces where humans encounter with primates. I could also visit and observe some of the sites they described myself.

In some forests that are located about fifty kilometres out of Yogyakarta, and in National Parks, it is possible to observe wild primates. Due to deforestation they may enter villages to forage for food. Furthermore, orang-utans raised at a sanctuary may escape from their keepers and may stay close to human settlements.

At Yogyakarta’s ‘famous zoo‘, as one student put it, you can find orang-utans, chimpanzees, gibbons, lutungs and proboscis monkeys. Compared to Western European zoos I have visited before, the enclosures in Yogyakarta are rather small and offer little enrichment to the animals. Local animal rights activists regard the conditions for the animals as very bad. Nevertheless I was often told that the zoo has changed a lot during the last years and is still getting cleaner and more attractive to the visitors.

Zookeepers called the orang-utans and the chimpanzee by personal names, which shows that the apes are perceived as individuals. The keepers gave basic information about the ape’s life in the wild. Several times a day a show with trained zoo animals (e.g. a bear playing guitar) was presented to the audience. At the end of each show an orang-utan, called Daisy entered the stage and had a ‘competition’ with a human in eating a coconut. The orang-utan always ‘won’. After that the presenter invited the audience to have a picture close together with Daisy (Picture 2). Several families followed his invitation. The presenter mentioned, that having such a picture would help to protect the species (see below). According to a student there are also parks in East-Java, which offer visitors photographs of the visitors hugging a trained young orang-utan.

The topeng monyet (Indonesian for ‘masked monkey’) are presented in neighbourhoods or at the traffic lights of big crossroads. These ‘masked monkeys’ are colourfully dressed macaques trained to perform tricks like riding a little motorbike or stilting. Often they wear rubber baby doll heads over their heads. Their audience are adults and children who stop on their mopeds at traffic lights.

The animal market is a permanent institution in Yogyakarta. One can buy many different domestic and wild animal species there. I found one trader offering four young long tailed macaques for sale (Picture 3) besides several other mammals. Activists told me that it is legal to sell these long tailed macaques at the market. Illegal primate species are usually sold via Internet, they added.

Kelsie, the pupils, activists, zoo visitors, and a teacher told me about monkeys kept at private homes. The activists of the centre for orang-utan protection knew about orang-utans kept as pets in Jakarta and Central Java, there might also be some in Yogyakarta. They continued that the primates are treated like human babies as long as they are young enough. Later they would be put in cages. At sanctuaries and government offices there are also primates kept in captivity, yet basically with the aim to release them into the wild.

A student told me that friends of his have eaten primate brains in a restaurant. They claimed that it would make them stronger.

Posing for a picture with the orang-utans, Gembira Loka Zoo, Yogyakarta


Macaques at the animal market, Yogyakarta.

3. Attitudes towards Primates

3.1. Primates are funny (if in cage or tamed)

Children as well as adults reacted with enthusiasm when I asked about the topeng monyet. Some persons imitated the monkey and laughed. ‘The children like it!’, a student said. People passing the monkey’s cage at the animal market shouted ‘monyet!’ (monkey) and laughed. Activists told me that for many people animals are there to have fun.

Monkeys are often used to quip about others. In TV shows, when someone is presented as an ‘idiot’, he behaves either like a paddy farmer or a monkey, Kelsie informed me. Children use to call others a ‘monkey’ to make a joke or to insult them.

A young caged macaque at the animal market attracted slightly more interest than the other animals. Some men where amused by the monkeys’ defensive reactions once approached closely.

I frequently witnessed visitors feeding primates at the zoo (although signs said it was forbidden). The apes begged for food, reaching their arms out through the mesh and skilfully catching the nuts and fruits. People encouraged the begging behaviour by waving and offering food, before throwing it. Some visitors clapped, laughed and filmed the scenes (Picture 4)

By contrast, free ranging primates are sensed as scary or annoying, when they steel snacks from tourists at sacred ‘monkey forests’, enter villages or feed on plantations.

Visitors at Gembira Loka Zoo, Yogyakarta, feeding an orang-utan


3.2. ‘Animal Lover’

Traders, breeders and pet owners said of themselves that they loved their animals. Even illegal traders called themselves ‘animal lovers’ on facebook. The woman who sold monkeys at the animal market stated she treated them like her own children. If it were cold, she would give the monkey a warm towel for instance. If anyone wants to buy and keep an animal as a pet, she hopes that the people will treat the animal good.

The owners enjoyed their animals’ form, colour and singing (in case of birds) or their funny behaviour and cuteness (in case of monkeys). They can use the animals as pets and as a toy, they love to interact with them.

To love an animal seems equivalent to providing good food, a chain or cage and keeping it at home. Releasing them into the wild did not seem a viable option. In very rare cases, as one of the teachers I talked to, knew from TV reports, people would even chain their loved human family members if they behaved dangerously due to mental illness and there was no money to afford appropriate medical treatment.

Despite the fact, that depictions of primates like those ‘family photographs’ made at the zoo undermined welfare and conservation goals, as Ross has noted (2008: 1487-1487), the moderator stated it would be for the benefit of the orang-utans. He supposedly believed this himself; he would think it is love, as an activist assumed. A father told me that he posed together with his children and the orang-utan because the kids should learn to interact with the animals, not to be afraid of them but to love the animals. A woman gently petted the ape’s head.

Although for some people the picture with the orang-utan just serves as a souvenir to be added to their collection, I think most adults and children conceived an affection for the orang-utan.

 3.3. ‘No Compassion’ for Primates

In the perception of my ‘Western’ informants many people do not feel with the animals. They had ‘no compassion’ or ‘lacked empathy’, they complained. I could observe that for most people it seemed rather normal to see animals in cages just big enough to move one or few steps at the animal market. The sellers were open to be interviewed and filmed by an accompanying film team.

According to the animal activists, topeng monyet were put on chains forcing them to stand upright and led thirsty for training purposes. Some pet monkeys were kept without regular food or a roof to protect them from the sun. A macaque was found at a chain, almost drowning in the floods of heavy tropical rain. His owner used him as a toy, gave him cigarettes and threw stones at him. He and his friends thought that was ‘funny’. At governmental departments, where confiscated orang-utans are kept, it can happen that employees would eat the ape’s food and leave the animals hungry.

3.4. Concern for Primates

Students, activists, and keepers think that the above-described treatments are problematic. Some are very sympathetic and campaign enormously for the primates. I witnessed the relationships between humans and orang-utan infants at the sanctuary as ‘affective bonds’. Yogyakarta’s activists contribute their time in many ways for the benefit of primates. The pupils at the school were also concerned about orang-utan protection.

3.5. Primates Compared to Humans

For the woman who sold monkeys at the market, as well as for some visitors at the zoo, they were not special compared to other animals. However, many others voiced that primates were smart and resembled humans physically. Some also referred to our ‘same history’ and similar behaviours, like ‘making a family’. The pupils of the School, I visited, as well as the activists also saw facial expressions and emotions in nonhuman primates comparable to those of humans. However, Kelsie told me that she often received ‘blank looks’ or amused comments when she intended to talk about emotions in animals. While many people regarded animals as living beings of a lower level than humans, one activist empathically summarized, ‘To help an orang-utan is like helping a human’.

4. Reasons behind these Attitudes

4.1. Profession and Prestige

As different informants related, primates are just ‘a business’ or ‘a job’ for traders, the handlers of the topeng monyet or some of the keepers in sanctuaries. To have to do with primates at work does not necessarily mean to have a passion for them. Many employees do not have options for other jobs and for some of them to work with apes or monkeys may be as less interesting or motivating as any other low paid job.

People of different professions and social classes keep primates as pets. For the socio-economic middle and upper class, this seems related to enhancing their prestige, as some activists stated.

4.2. Religion

Religion, first of all Islam as the dominant belief of the archipelago, plays an important role in daily Indonesian life. Foreign observers assume that religion has an influence on the relationship between humans and animals, because it accentuates the gap and the hierarchy between them. Although, the theory of evolution is taught at some schools, this topic is regarded as belonging to ‘science’ only, and hence strictly separated from religious education. The Muslim teachers, I talked to, stressed that the Koran would keep its validity. They stated: “Humans are from humans, orang-utans are from orang-utans”. Furthermore, in school curriculum, animals are seen as resource gifts from God.

On the other hand two informants who did not like to see animals caged, stated they would believe in God but they did not agree with the concept of religion. However, these findings do not prove Islam, or any religion, causing the treatments of animals described above. This issue asks for further investigation, including its wider historical context.

4.3. Education

My research partner Kelsie and most of the activists regard education as ‘a big issue’. Hence, activists invest in educating themselves and others. Some talked about their own educational experiences as ‘enlightenments’ and that it was hard to enlighten others. Pet owners, for example, thought it was funny, when their animal ran in circles inside its cage. School curricula only slightly touch upon the issues of animal care or evolution. Some people would not know how orang-utans looked like, that they lived in Indonesia only and faced extinction.

Nevertheless, the pupils I met, knew some facts about orang-utans and were very interested in learning more about them. Some people knew that there was an abundance of wild primates in the archipelago’s national parks and they stated that they would love to go there themselves, if they had the funds.

4.4. A Matter of Habit

In Yogyakarta it is very common to have caged birds hanging over verandas and porches[i] (Picture 5). Other pets, even dogs are kept in cages or at chains, too. Even activists, working at sanctuaries got used to primates in small cages, as one of them revealed. This is a matter of habit. Children grow up, seeing birds and other animals in cages everyday. They are used to this sight.

Alternative forms of keeping animals adequately were barely known. Kelsie and I analysed that there are many laws and rules about animal husbandry, but they are simply not followed.

A common sight in Yogya: caged birds.

5. Conclusion: Similarities between Indonesia and Germany

I will use my own emotions and personal experiences as a hinge to compare between observations in Germany and Indonesia. At the opening workshop of our field excursion, Kelsie told me about suffering animals in Yogyakarta. These reports caused feelings of compassion. I had often felt that way regarding animals in Germany but I was afraid that the emotional distress I would experience while collecting data in Indonesia could be much harder. Instead I was surprised how often situations in Indonesia reminded me of my experiences at home.

Although less bluntly, when compared to Yogyakarta, Germans also talk and behave according to a big gap between humans and all other animals. Taking into account that many school curricula also separate between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, this might be faith-related. I agree with my informants that education plays an important role. I assume that knowledge about social and emotional commonalities between human and nonhuman animals as well as knowledge about their natural behaviours and needs motivates and enables us to treat other living beings more appropriate to the species.

Primates as pets are extremely rare in Europe. However, this fact might mainly be related to their limited availability. They are still used as funny attractions in advertisements[ii], TV[iii]– and life shows[iv] and even zoos[v]. Knowledge about detriments to individuals and species caused by this is low.

Relating to the argument that the way animals are treated is a matter of social and cultural habit, I observed the following in myself: at the animal market there were many wild and domestic bird species in little cages. I felt less sorry for those I was used to see in cages because I owned some of the presented species as a child, such as budgerigars and zebra finches. Yet I felt more compassion for the species I did not know (which I thought are usually shy and wild) and the chicken (which I am used to see walking around in gardens).

While I was collecting my data, I was constantly puzzled by the question: If people love animals, why do they treat them like that? It was a teacher of German language in Jogja, who gave me this simple answer: “The people love their animals, but they have to cage them, otherwise they would run away. And this could also be dangerous for other people. But they love them.” If you just take this simple pattern: You are attracted by an animal, you own it and take care for it but you have to keep it in a way that fits into human daily life and you do it in the way it is usually done. – This reminds me on habits of animal lovers in Germany. I think there are many examples of people who are attracted by animals and own animals but – due to lack of knowledge or money or other factors – keep and treat them in a way that makes it presumably uncomfortable or even very stressful for the animal. Horses, for instance, are big, strong, potentially dangerous animals. At the same time they cannot cry. So many riders are harming their horses (e.g. by rough use of bridles, not fitting saddles or keeping them in small stables) and have no idea that they are doing so or that there are alternatives. They follow their routines, and most of the onlookers accept this cultural practice as completely ‘normal’. In the 1990s nobody believed that it was possible to lead or ride a horse completely without bridle. Today more and more people do this and use halters and bridles more gently, respectively. It might be difficult to imagine for some, whether a monkey jumping around ‘vividly’ in its cage or a horse that does not cry is suffering or not.

I am far from arguing that it is appropriate to keep primates and other animals in cages or chained. My intention is to illustrate that, since human-animal relationships are shaped by socio-cultural and educational practices, they can be changed – not only in Germany or in Indonesia.


I am deeply thankful to all my informants and interlocutors in Yogyakarta and Kalimantan, especially Kelsie Prabawa-Sear. I am also grateful for the support of the artists Emanuel Mathias, Franz von Bodelschwingh and Zulhiczar Arie and the ‘KUNCI Cultural Studies Center’. Particularly the help provided by Samia Dinkelaker, Ferdiansyah Thajib, Thomas Stodulka and Katja Liebal was greatly appreciated. The Volkswagen Foundation supported this project.

Author’s Bio: 

Julia Keil, a Biological Anthropologist and Social Worker, experienced with horses, farm animals and orang-utans, is doing a PhD about Emotions in Primatology within the project ‘The Researcher’s Affects’, headed by the Social and Cultural Anthropologist Thomas Stodulka.


  • Bowd, Alan D., and Anne C. Bowd (1989)  Attitudes Toward the Treatment of Animals: A Study of Christian Groups in Australia. Anthrozoös 3(1): 20–24.
  • Flynn, Clifton P. (2001) Acknowledging the “Zoological Connection”: A Sociological Analysis of Animal Cruelty. Society & Animals 9(1): 71–87.
  • Fuentes, Agustin (2011)    Being Human and Doing Primatology: National, Socioeconomic, and Ethnic Influences on Primatological Practice. American Journal of Primatology 73(3): 233–237.
  • Grow, Nanda, Sharon Gursky-Doyen & Jatna Supriatna (2010) Introduction’ to Indonesian Primates, by Sharon Gursky-Doyen & Jatna Supriatna, 1-5. New York: Springer.
  • Knight, Sarah, & Louise Barnett (2008) Justifying Attitudes toward Animal Use: A Qualitative Study of People’s Views and Beliefs. Anthrozoös 21(1): 31–42.
  • Knight, Sarah, Aldert Vrij, Julie Cherryman & Karl Nunkoosing (2004) Attitudes towards Animal Use and Belief in Animal Mind. Anthrozoös 17(1): 43–62.
  • Martens, Daniela (2009) Leserdebatte Sollen Tiernummern in Zirkussen verboten werden Berlin-Tagesspiegel.
  • Ross, Stephen R., Kristen E. Lukas, Elizabeth V. Lonsdorf, Tara S. Stoinski, Brian Hare, Robert Shumaker & Jane Goodall (2008) SCIENCE PRIORITIES: Inappropriate Use and Portrayal of Chimpanzees. Science 319(5869):1487–1487.
  • Serpell, JA (2004) Factors Influencing Human Attitudes to Animals and Their Welfare. Animal Welfare 13(1): 145–151.
  •  Javaneraffe – Fotostrecke: Schwarzmarkt der Wildtiere 14’. National Geographic  2015.
  • ‘Topeng Monyet‘ – The Masked Monkeys Of Indonesia – Pictures – Zimbio’.


End Notes:

*An earlier version of this article was published in: Anja Höing & Arieahn Matamonasa Bennett (Ed.) (2016) Humans and Animals: Intersecting Lives and Worlds | Inter-Disciplinary Press.

[i] This being a cultural and historical practice, they are kept and groomed for competitions of various kinds. Those who have read Clifford Geertz, will remember that cockfighting is still a widespread practice of amusement and gambling.

[ii]Die Story vom Affen’

[iii]Die Affen sind los!’, TV total, broadcasted on 12 November 2013.

[iv]Schimpansenshow’, Schwabenpark,

[v] When I visited ‘Apenheul’, a primate park in the Netherlands, I witnessed the feeding of the gorillas. It was staged as a big, loud and funny show for a crowd of hundreds of visitors sitting on a grandstand.