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Sanctuary for prowlers, yowlers

Duncan Graham

The Jakarta Post

Malang  /  Wed, January 24, 2018  /  08:39 am
Sanctuary for prowlers, yowlers

Friendly gesture: A kitten interacts with a dog at the shelter. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

The United Kingdom and Australia have the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The United States has a similar outfit minus the prefix. Malang in East Java has Asri Rahayu Agustina or Leotina as she is called by her friends.

Some cat lovers get a little unhinged, preferring felines to humans, even starting to smell and look like them. But the former fitness center owner giving sanctuary to four-paw refugees is no soft-touch eccentric.

Although some anti-socials among the 16 dogs are chained, most of the 80 cats doze in spacious cages or wander outside and there are no odors to annoy.

“As a child I always loved animals and couldn’t stand to see them being ill-treated,” she said. “I’m a Muslim and we should be caring. There’s a famous story of the Prophet preparing to pray but found his favorite cat, Muezza, asleep on his clothes. Rather than disturb his pet he cut off the robe’s sleeve.

“Unfortunately few are so kind. They see a lovely cat in the market and pay thousands of rupiah -- maybe up to a million (US$74) and then find looking after the animal is boring.”

In the rich character mix of Indonesian kampungs and villages there is often a carer. Usually a woman, the pussy protector scatters scraps for the strays that soon discover Cat Cafe and call their mates. 

Some see this as a humane gesture and others a curse because it encourages the beasties to stay and breed in great numbers. Then the less sympathetic seek to cull them.

Asri Rahayu Agustina or Leotina, the owner of a shelter for cats and dogs in Malang.Asri Rahayu Agustina or Leotina, the owner of a shelter for cats and dogs in Malang. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

The problem of controlling semi-ferals without resorting to brutal means like trapping and poisoning challenges most societies. If someone doesn’t drown the moggy they drive to a seclude spot far from home, dump them and flee. If they have a smidgen of compassion they offer the cats to Leotina.

“I usually refuse because if they took on a responsibility they should see it through,” she said. “Only if they say they’ll throw it away will I take it in and hope to find a foster home.”

Cute kittens transmogrify into ferocious toms and fecund queens. Two months after a raucous night on the tiles, one becomes eight. Cats can live for up to two decades.

Abandoning unwanted pets isn’t an exclusive Indonesian issue, but elsewhere it is taken seriously. Offenders in Western countries face fines, jail and the wrath of society. 

In New Zealand, ditched fur balls become ruthless wildlife killers, slashing numbers of rare bush creatures and flightless kiwis -- nocturnal feeders and easy prey. 

Leotina, 52, has lived in the US so she knows how foreigners get angered by cruelty.

Dig in: Shelter worker Suhartono feeds the stray cats.Dig in: Shelter worker Suhartono feeds the stray cats. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

Strays handed over to shelters overseas get restored to health and microchipped before being offered for sale. They are also sterilized, a practice that Leotina wants all owners to follow unless they are professional breeders.

“The offput is the cost,” she said. “Vets can charge Rp 600,000 for a male and double for a female. I’ve had help from students training to be animal surgeons but they aren’t always reliable. It’s the same with volunteers offering assistance. Sometimes they come, oftentimes not.”

So she ends up doing much of the feeding and cleaning herself along with one worker, Suhartono, to walk the dogs. His chores include carting water because the old building she uses rent-free hasn’t been connected to a supply.

The dogs have been rescued from backyard butchers. Malang is an education city with thousands of students from eastern islands where canine cutlets are a favorite.

Man’s best friends aren’t much loved in Muslim-majority Java where they are judged unclean. So anyone dispatching a stray will not worry the village unless Leotina happens to be passing. Her particular gripe is with breeders who keep the trade alive.

She relies on kind hearts supplying bulk food.

“God sent animals to test us,” said Leotina. “We must love them all and not discriminate.”

Home sweet home: A view of Leotina's shelter in Malang, East Java, where she takes care of strays dogs and cats.Home sweet home: A view of Leotina's shelter in Malang, East Java, where she takes care of strays dogs and cats. (JP/Erlinawati Graham)

Adopt, don’t buy

The non-profit Jakarta Animal Aid Network also urges pet shoppers to adopt, not buy.

Co-founder Femke de Haas said there could be cultural problems when people see animals as being less than humans, but the situation was improving.

The network is cooperating with the national government through the Agriculture Ministry to improve animal welfare.

De Haas said more shelters were opening, which were usually started by individuals.

“They mean well but we need regulations and oversight on issues like cage sizes, hygiene and premises. There was a shocking situation recently when 180 dogs died in a fire.

“Government officials agree that there should be protocols but they don’t know how these can be implemented.”