Darwin’s back in the news. He’s a young macaque who is often called the "Ikea Monkey" since he was found wandering around a Toronto Ikea parking lot one day last winter in a designer winter coat. He was seized because of a Toronto bylaw prohibiting monkeys as pets, and transferred to a local primate sanctuary. His owner, Yasmin Nakhuda, has been waging a high profile battle to get him back. There are numerous Facebook pages dedicated to freeing Darwin, and she apparently sent him a birthday greeting (perhaps not realizing it’s unlikely that he had internet access at the sanctuary… or can read).
Anyway, Ms. Nakhuda is suing for custody and the trial is currently underway. Needless to say there’s a lot of drama in the courtroom as Ms. Nakhuda tries to regain custody of the animal she calls her "son." Much of the trial has centred around issues of property, which I guess makes sense since that’s the main legal avenue.
However, what’s not been mentioned are the greater concerns, namely does Darwin pose a risk to the public and does Ms. Nakhuda pose a risk to Darwin? I think the answer to part 1 is certainly yes, and the answer to part 2 is maybe.
The first question (does Darwin pose a risk to the public) is easy. There are a variety of issues with keeping non-human primates as pets. They can be destructive, they are surprisingly strong for their size, and macaques are notorious for being aggressive, so the risk of trauma alone is a major issue. Disease is another concern, and the big problem in this case is herpes B virus. This virus can be found in most healthy captive macaques and can cause fatal infection in people. The fact that it’s been reported that Darwin was prone to biting makes me cringe, since that’s a huge risk for herpes B transmission. Among the trial testimony was an email Ms. Nakhuda sent to a US primate trainer in November documenting her struggles. Among the problems was aggression that Darwin had towards her son and co-workers.
It’s bad enough that she’s exposing herself and her family (including her human chldren) to Darwin. Exposing people with whom she works (and perhaps people who work for her, and would have a hard time raising any concerns they had) is completely inappropriate, as is taking Darwin out in public (apparently "everywhere," including the gym, grocery store, and obviously Ikea). Ms. Nakhuda either doesn’t understand the issues or doesn’t care. Either way, it’s not good.
I don’t doubt that Ms. Nakhuda cares for Darwin. However, as the primate sanctuary lawyer Kevin Toyne said "This is not about who loves Darwin the most." For me, it should be about protecting the best interests of the public and Darwin, neither of which would result in him being returned to his previous owner.