In Godsâ€™ Country, Misery for Animals and Humans
By William J. Furney
The Bali Times
LOVINA, Bali ~ â€œBreathtakingâ€ is one adjective to describe a trip from southern Bali to the north of the island, yet that word alone does not do the moving, spiritual scenery along the way enough justice.
The vast vistas are immense, and continual; the views from atop undulating hills of unending, palm tree-covered plains are arresting to a sudden point where you stop and consider your place in it all. It is pure, uninstalled natural beauty unsurpassed on this planet, and here, with mists swirling and clouds hovering as the sunâ€™s rays peek through, you think, Yes, I see: this is Godsâ€™ country.
Itâ€™s no wonder the Balinese are so devout in their devotion to the divine.
After a four-hour trip last Friday through this majestic and heavenly land, I arrived at my destination, the Melka Excelsior Hotel, Dolphin and Wild Life Resort in Lovina, a tourism favorite on the northern coast, an area where the dolphin is lauded as king, and indeed, at Lovina Beach, a towering statue depicts this wonder of the seas, topped off with a crown-wearing member of this most intelligent of ocean-dwelling creatures.
At the three-star hotel, breathtaking quickly turns to heartbreaking. Thereâ€™s no such ocean-roaming freedom for its newly displayed dolphins: two live in a saltwater swimming pool where they are marketed for guestsâ€™ (and non-guestsâ€™) swimming pleasure. Two more reside in an adjacent pool, where they perform tricks thrice daily for visitorsâ€™ pleasure.
Thereâ€™s also a â€œzooâ€ at the 63-room hotel, owned by German native Karl Meyer, where a solitary, young orangutan lives in a tiny cage, along with, elsewhere, a sun bear, crocodile and others.
Also thrice daily is a â€œcircusâ€ in a rudimentary auditorium where cute otters perform ball games, the sun bear tragically lifts fake weights and rides a childâ€™s bicycle and a clever cacatua spells out its name with preset boards. Itâ€™s entirely amateurishly produced, but that didnâ€™t stop the rotund Indonesian woman sitting beside me from dissolving into hysterics at the animalsâ€™ trained antics.
Itâ€™s hard to reconcile this image of captive wildlife with that of a hotel in a tourist area, but guests last weekend â€“ Indonesians, Europeans and Australians â€“ appeared to enjoy the displays and shows.
Dolphin and zoo trainer Budi, from Java, said to me: â€œThe dolphins are happy â€“ you can see it in their eyes.â€
WWF has different take on it all, as hotel employee Any told me. â€œThey came here and had many complaints,â€ she said.
The hotel, she said, has all necessary government licenses, and indeed, she insisted, has permission for up to 10 dolphins to live in the saltwater pools.
The dolphins are bottle-nosed and from near Semarang in Central Java, she said. Lovina dolphins are smaller creatures, I was told.
There are plans underway to construct a large pool in which two more dolphins will live, and will be used for a healing program for people with disabilities, notably autistic children.
To the untrained mind, the animals at the hotel appeared lackluster, especially the lone orangutan, Blangko, and the sun bear, whose enclosure resembles a tomb. The hotelâ€™s employees were seemingly equally as gloomy. Not long after I sat down in a restaurant by a freshwater pool for dinner on Saturday night did a string of employees approach me to speak of their distain at working at the establishment, where for their month-long efforts, most receive a salary of a paltry Rp250,000 (US$27.69), less than half that government-required minimum monthly salary. Service charge is not divided up among staff, they said.
â€œWe canâ€™t complain to the owner because he will tell us there are many people lining up for our jobs because unemployment is high here,â€ said one, a 19-year-old.
Another, a father of two, said it was â€œimpossible to surviveâ€ on the money, and that he had to make repeated trips to the management office to get advances on the following monthâ€™s salary.
All were sympathetic about the hotelâ€™s animals.
â€œWe feel sorry for them,â€ said one.
Meanwhile, the hotel management markets the animal attractions to draw in more punters. Adult in-house guests pay Rp75,000 to touch the dolphins and take photos, Rp275,000 for 20 minutesâ€™ snorkeling with them and Rp350,00 for 20 minutes of scuba diving in the swimming pool inhabited by two dolphins. Outside guests pay slightly more in some cases and pay Rp50,000 per adult and Rp35,000 per child to see the dolphin show â€“ free for those staying at the boutique-type property. (I stayed two nights in a Deluxe room that I found basic and had mosquitoes; the rate was Rp300,000 per night.)
As to future plans, construction is well advanced on a dome that will house butterflies. A rare white tiger is on order and due to arrive either this month or in August, the staff said. Its claustrophobically small enclosure has been designated and is awaiting its new occupant. Also on order: camels, ponies and possibly an elephant, zoo staff told me.
As space expands for the new creatures, the hotel is also adding more rooms, â€œbecause we need them,â€ said one staffer, adding that the hotel was currently enjoying an occupancy rate of around 80 percent.
An Australian zoo owner told The Bali Times this week he has received complains about the zoo at the Melka Hotel.
â€œI have had at least 30 calls and emails asking me to help, from locals and tourists, saying itâ€™s cruel and not a happy environment for the animals,â€ said Tony Greenwood of Peel Zoo in Western Australia.
â€œIt reflects on all zoos if one is a dodgy place. Tourists expect to see a run-down zoo in a third-world country. Bali is not that third-world that they canâ€™t look after the animals. Common sense and experience tell you not to lock these animals up and display them as carnival sideshows. They are living flesh and blood. They have a heart and feelings.â€
Greenwood said it would be beneficial â€“ to the animals and tourists â€“ if there was cooperation between his zoo, Bali Zoo in Singapadu (with whom he is currently working with on a renovation program) and the Melka zoo.
â€œWe could be sharing experiences, animals, breeding, etc. We could be seen making a difference in the animalsâ€™ world together â€“ nothing commercial, just zoos working together.â€
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