Indonesian zoos do not enjoy a sterling reputation for animal care. When foreigners try to intervene, officials become upset – especially when money is at stake.
An American environmentalist has raised over $41,000 and counting – in the hopes of improving conditions at Indonesian zoos and rescuing suffering animals. Officials at Bandung Zoo in West Java province think the money should go straight to the zoo itself.
In recent years, Bandung Zoo has been accused of failing to provide adequate care for its animals. Earlier this year, an old video of its sun bears, appearing emaciated and hungry, was uploaded on YouTube, prompting renewed calls for the zoo’s closure.
Rebecca Rodriguez, who describes herself as a “lifelong animal advocate, filmmaker and consultant,” on March 16 launched an online fundraising campaign on gofundme.com. The page prominently features the YouTube video titled ‘Bandung Zoo: Starving sun bears and dirty cages #horrificzoo.’
Rodriguez’s goal is to raise US$75,000 to ‘help the animals of Indonesia.’ Specifically, she wanted to assemble a six-person team of experts to visit Indonesia for two weeks “to advocate on behalf of these animals with the government agencies and zoo owners.” She claimed the team would aim to visit 28 zoos and “do everything in our power to first improve the conditions and requirements and if possible, free these animals.”
As of June 12, she had raised US$41,646. News of the fundraising reached Bandung Zoo’s head of marketing and communications, Sulhan Syafi’i.
On June 8, he told reporters the zoo’s management had not received any of the money. “[Rebecca] uses a picture of our skinny sun bear for promotions and received donations of about US$50,000,” he was quoted as saying by detik.com online news portal.
He said Sybelle Foxcroft, the director of an Australia-based animal rights non-governmental organisation called Cee4Life, had alerted him of Rodriguez’s campaign. He described Foxcroft as one of the zoo’s ‘NGO partners’ for education.
“When Sybelle asked for the money, Rebecca would not give it; Rebecca is cunning; that money should be given to us, because it was publicised as assistance for Bandung Zoo,” he said.
“We love it when people abroad want to make donations to help us, but when the money has been collected, just give it to us, otherwise it’s fraud,” he added.
Syafi’i claimed Rodriguez was planning to use the money to make a film comparing cages in privately-managed Bandung Zoo to facilities in American zoos. “I think this is not fair, especially as our country is only newly developed, whereas is America is very developed. We will forbid them to make movies or take pictures.”
Rodriguez and three members of her team arrived in Indonesia on June 4. The following day they drove from Jakarta to Bandung. On June 6, she visited a local government office, while her associates visited the zoo. They discovered that a photo of Rodriguez, taken from the internet, had been pinned to the wall of the entrance booth. They also found the sun bears “in a little holding area – hidden away from public view.”
“The sun bears had been locked away so I could not see them,” Rodriguez later wrote. “They knew I would be there soon and so Sybelle Foxcroft of Cee4Life, working with the zoo association in Indonesia, made sure that the zoo would refuse me entry and she made certain – that if my people got in that the sun bears would be hidden away. It appears that Sybelle … and the Bandung Zoo forced discomfort on the already compromised sun bears – out of spite.”
Rodriguez said “government authorities” responded negatively to her proposal to help the animals. The same day, Foxcroft posted on Facebook a photo of Rodriguez exiting a bus at the government office. One person commented, “Surely they won’t let her in.” Foxcroft replied, “Not today.”
On June 10, Rodriguez announced she had cut short her visit and left Indonesia, as she had been blocked from visiting all zoos. She accused Foxcroft of being chiefly responsible for the ban. She said Foxcroft had “repeatedly demanded the funds I raised” and that “Cee4Life became vicious and has threatened my safety by launching unsubstantiated accusations of fraud.”
The failure of Rodriguez’s visit has not dampened her enthusiasm for fundraising. “At this time,” she posted, “I ask for your continued support and confidence as I work to silence this scam artist and continue our work to help the animals of Indonesia.”
She insisted her visit had achieved some successes, as she had met with some people involved in animal rescue, resulting in assistance for two kittens, one monkey and two otters.
“We have already rescued two starving kittens, paid for the medical care for an injured monkey and helped with the rescued/relocated two otters,” she enthused.
Meanwhile, a war of words erupted online between supporters of Rodriguez and Foxcroft. Anti-zoo activists accused Foxcroft of lying, attempted theft and causing suffering to animals.
On June 12, a furious Foxcroft posted a live-feed video on Facebook, insisting she was working with Indonesian authorities to improve zoo conditions. She lambasted Rodriguez’s fundraising, as well as an online petition, initiated on change.org by an individual named P. Holmes, calling on President Joko Widodo to close down Bandung Zoo. The petition had by mid-June attracted almost 824,000 supporters, as well as comments attacking Foxcroft and Cee4Life.
Foxcroft said the petition “is inciting a hate-fest on me … So please report it and get change.org to take that disgraceful thing down. As for the gofundme that Miss Rodriguez has started for the sun bears of Indonesia, the updates on that also have pretty much become about myself and Cee4Life; very defamatory stuff. We implore you to report it and take it down.”
She denied having the power to order the Indonesian government to keep Rodriguez out of Indonesian zoos. She also pointed out that online vitriol aimed at closing down zoos will not improve the fate of animals already in captivity in Indonesia.
So, who’s right and who’s wrong? If you really want to help Indonesia improve its treatment of animals, then start living here and try to encourage positive change. Develop contacts within zoos, the government and animal rights groups. Note that forest destruction and poaching are causing suffering and death to animals on a far greater scale than badly managed zoos. So donations may be more cost-effective if given to credible NGOs, such as International Animal Rescue. Don’t waste your time and other people’s money by thinking you can just fly in and set free the bears. For better or worse, that’s not how Indonesia works.