Meet the Indonesian vegans changing minds on animal rights, one pig at a time

Liong Sing Hui and Loo Shih Loong with some of their rescued animals.
PHOTO: Handout

When Indonesians hear the term "animal sanctuary", they usually imagine a place where animals classified as endangered species live. Animal shelters for stray cats and dogs also exist in the country, but are usually privately run by animal lovers.

What is almost unheard of, however, is a sanctuary for rescued farmed animals, such as the Sehati Animal Sanctuary, in the city of Dumai on the eastern coast of the island of Sumatra.

Thought to be the country's first and only sanctuary for farmed animals, Sehati occupies around 3.3 hectares (8.2 acres) of land on which almost 300 animals - mostly chickens, goats, rabbits and sheep, plus a few stray cats and dogs - will spend the rest of their lives, free from economic exploitation and physical abuse.

Founded in 2017 by husband and wife, Loo Shih Loong, 46, and Liong Sing Hui, 43, using their life savings, Sehati was not a planned venture.

"In 2014 I came back from Malaysia to Dumai to care for my ailing mother who passed away two years later," Liong said. "I was so grief-stricken that my uncle, a pig farmer, gave me three piglets to keep me company. A few months later, when the piglets were grown, he wanted them back, to be sold, and it was then I realised I had bonded with them. So I refused to give them up."

Another defining moment was when the couple were at the village market and witnessed a shrieking and scared pig being slaughtered. The couple were so horrified, they became vegan.

They then began to rescue farm animals in their village and surrounding area. They spent all their money and even pawned family jewellery to establish a safe haven for the creatures, in the process earning the scorn and ridicule of friends and relatives who called them "stupid and crazy".

The couple say they were not surprised at people's reactions as animal rights is a relatively new concept in Indonesia.

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While the country's criminal code prohibits the abuse and mistreatment of animals, these laws are rarely enforced.

Yana Heksa Purbowati, 39, is the founder of the Surabaya-Sidoarjo Advocacy Group for Domestic Cats. She said that through her experiences reporting abuse against cats to the police, she had seen a general lack of regard for animal rights among law-enforcers.

"My impression is that our police tend to see the rights of animals as unimportant. Some officers, though not all, would dismiss or laugh off reports of animal abuse."

This year, Rafeles Simanjuntak, a 29-year-old man from the city of Medan who is known in the media as the "cat-butcher", was sentenced to 2½ years in prison.

Simanjuntak had been reported by Sonia Rizkika for cruelty against animals after she found the remains of her missing cat, Tayo, in a sack with the decapitated heads and innards of other felines at the defendant's house. He had long been in the habit of capturing cats and dogs and butchering them for their meat, which he ate or sold.

Rizkika's report was not initially taken seriously by the police until her post on Instagram went viral and garnered public support. Simanjuntak was eventually convicted of theft, not animal abuse. Had he been charged with animal abuse, the maximum sentence would have been just nine months in prison.

Last week, Indonesian social media was abuzz with the claim that a dog named Canon had been tortured and killed by the local public order police (Satpol PP) in Aceh Singkil after being forcibly captured from a "shariah-compliant" tourist site.

Fajar Zakri, country representative for Indonesia with Animal Alliance Asia, said most Indonesians saw animals as "lesser beings" that did not warrant the same level of compassion as human beings or as "economic assets", making public discourse on animal rights challenging.

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And Purbowati, founder of the advocacy group for cats, said Indonesia's status as a developing economy was a hurdle for animal rights.

"People think that they themselves are far from prosperous, so why think about animals?"

While Indonesia is currently ranked 16th in the world for its US$1 trillion (S$1.35 trillion) annual GDP , its income per capita stands at US$3,900, placing the country 122nd. In 2013, New Zealand academic Michael C. Morris published research connecting a country's GDP and income equality with animal welfare.

Morris argued that a country's GDP typically determined its overall level of animal welfare but the equation was also moderated by its Gini coefficient, which measures income quality on a scale of zero to 100. The US, for example, which had a Gini ratio of 45 in 2013, scored less on animal welfare compared to the EU, which had the better Gini ratio of 30.7, although the US had a larger GDP (US$15 trillion) than the EU (US$14 trillion). Indonesia's Gini ratio for 2019 was 38.2.

But Purbowati is convinced that public attitudes towards animal rights are changing for the better.

"Animal rights campaigners need to have a generous attitude. Turning up our noses at others' lack of concern for animals can only be self-defeating. We shouldn't alienate further those who are yet to care about animal rights."

At Sehati, both Loo and Liong agree that animal advocates can only try to highlight the issue of animal welfare and hope that others will come to the same realisation.

"We believe it is our life's purpose to help others. Farm animals are living beings and nobody speaks up for them, so we must be their voice. But we never judge others based on what they eat, for example."

Sehati has recently partnered with a network of volunteers in Indonesia and across the world to hold a series of crowd-funding events in November, including sponsored runs in Bali, Jakarta, Australia and Vietnam involving 23 individual runners, live band performances and a raffle, all to raise funds for the sanctuary's future operation.

"In the near future, we plan to become a learning centre, where people can [visit us] and experience the human-animal bond without judgment. While we can't rescue all the animals, we know that Sehati can make lasting change in Indonesia," Loong said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post