Jogjakarta and Denpasar, Indonesia – Every year in Indonesia, at least one million dogs are brutally butchered for human consumption, according to various charities trying to stamp out the trade. “Everyone talks about the dog-meat trade in China and Vietnam no one talks about Indonesia’s,” Lola Webber, spokeswoman for the Dog Meat-Free Indonesia coalition, told Al Jazeera.
“By very conservative estimates, we think about one million dogs are eaten every year in Indonesia. If you look at hotspots like the city of Solo where 160,000 are eaten every year, you start to realise the scale of the problem. And we know the dogs don’t come from Solo, but other parts of the country.”
The consumption of dog meat in Indonesia, a Muslim-majority nation where dog meat is considered “haram” or forbidden, is thought to have originated in the mostly Christian province of North Sulawesi in the archipelago’s northeast.
“It was introduced as a delicacy in Bali and Java by Christian missionaries in the 1920s,” said Agra Utary of Yayasan Seva Bhuana, an animal welfare group that has conducted extensive field research on the phenomenon.
“Because it came from missionaries, people started to believe dog meat had healing or medicinal properties. Many people in Indonesia still believe it can cure health problems like asthma and skin problems while men believe it can give more sexual stamina.”
Selling dog meat is not against the law in most parts of Indonesia.
But transporting dogs of an unknown disease and vaccination status around the country is illegal as it disrupts efforts to tackle rabies, a disease that kills tens of thousands of people in Asia each year, according to the World Health Organization.
“It’s not just about the emotional argument – that the dog meat industry is unimaginably cruel – it’s about the health risk it poses for humans,” said Bobby Fernando, founder of Adopsi, an app that matches homeless pets with people interested in adopting them.
“Indonesia has the fifth-highest number of rabies cases in Asia.” The theft of pets is another nasty side-effect of the dog-meat trade.
“Dog kidnapping is a huge problem where I live,” said Monique van der Harst, the Australian founder of Animal Friends Jogja, an animal rescue and rehabilitation group that runs a sanctuary for dogs, cats, eagles, monkeys and orangutans in the Javanese city of Yogyakarta.
“Hundreds of people send us photos of their dogs that have gone missing every year in case we are caring for them at our shelter.”
Dog theft is also a problem in Bali, a “rabies red-zone” where more than 100 dog bites are reported every day, according to freelance photographer Sesilia Kadrie, one of numerous dog-owners on the island who blame their pets’ sudden disappearance on poachers working for the dog-meat trade.
“Her name was Jiggy,” Kadrie said.
“One day I was bathing her and she ran outside and went for a wander before I had a chance to put her collar back on. But she never came home.”
Kadrie asked her neighbours what they had seen, and searched everywhere for her pet.
“I don’t believe anyone would have taken Jiggy to keep her as a pet. She was not an easy dog to handle. There was a restaurant that sells dog meat about a kilometre from my home and I suspect they thought she was a stray and took her.”
She adds: “I never got a new dog because I’m afraid it’ll just happen again. It’s a pretty common thing – dogs getting stolen in Bali.”
In Bali, all activities relating to the dog-meat trade were banned in 2018.
In June, a joint task force between Balinese police and the Department of Health and Animal Husbandry inspected hundreds of restaurants and street stalls across the island – and said they closed the last of 33 venues selling dog meat.
But according to BAWA, a charity that runs a number of dog shelters on the island, 70,000 dogs are still eaten in Bali every year.
“I think they probably closed some of the big places and those in tourist areas like Kuta because of the outcry caused about tourists thinking they are eating dog that they were told was chicken or pork,” said Janice Girardi, the American-born founder BAWA.
“But I think it’s very difficult to close all of them down. Some places simply took their dog-meat signage down or have a standard menu and then another menu for dog meat. We recently took a film crew to find dog meat restaurants in northern Bali and we found many pop-up stalls selling dog meat. The people who own these stalls are very poor and the poachers also poor. I spoke to one the other day. He told me, ‘This is what my father did and what my grandfather did. It’s the only thing I know how to do’.
“We need to look at the problem more holistically and I think education is the real key,” Girardi said. “We run programmes in schools where we teach kids about animal welfare, teach them how dogs feel pain and have feelings, and how to avoid dog bites. We’ve already reached 100,000 primary school children. Next year we’re doubling it.”
Authorities in other parts of Indonesia are also trying to stamp out the trade. In Jakarta, all dogs bought and sold must now be microchipped. In Central Java, the Mayor of Karanganyar Regency announced a deadline for the closure of all dog-meat restaurants and stalls and is offering vendors five million rupiah (US$355) to help them move into other kinds of businesses.
Van der Harst, who is also part of the Dog Meat-Free Indonesia coalition, says all these developments are positive, but efforts to lobby authorities in Solo, the country’s dog meat hotspot, have had little impact.
“In Karanganyar there are only 16 dog-meat restaurants, but in Solo, there are literally hundreds and hundreds,” she said. “We have lobbied the authorities in Solo but they always tell us there are too many of these restaurants and too many people will be put out of work if they closed them – even though they know it’s illegal because the dogs are being brought in from Bali.”
Van der Harst and her colleagues are also trying to preach to the unconverted: the estimated 18.5 million dog-meat eaters in Indonesia. “We go into dog restaurants and talk with the customers and owners,” she said.
“But we have to be careful because people’s livelihoods are at stake. We recently had dogs skulls and bones thrown over our fence. It was obviously a threat from people who don’t want to change.”
With reporting by Hevie Ursulla